Framing history with the contemporary is nothing new. The best backward-looking art uses the past as a way of illuminating the present, often saying things about the now that might otherwise be perceived as too raw or too crude. Likewise, applying an autobiographical lens to historical material can sometimes offer fascinating new insights, using the subjective voice as a pathway to wider understanding. When the slippage between these layers – of past and present, of fact and fiction – is too pointed, however, the result can become a tangle of distractions.
This is a fate to which Josephine and I veers dangerously close. In her self-penned one-woman show, actress Cush Jumbo plays a fictionalised version of actress Cush Jumbo, who in turn plays twentieth-century entertainer and activist Josephine Baker. Confused yet? When she first appears, it seems plausible that Jumbo really is playing herself – or at least a version of herself, as anyone arguably is as soon as they place themselves in a public space. By way of introduction, she explains her almost lifelong obsession with Baker, a fascination sparked as a young child by the surprise of seeing a black woman starring in a film from the 1930s. This soon segues into representations of Baker herself, establishing a back and forth habit of shape-shifting that characterises the structure of the show. Throughout, the action flits regularly between telling Baker’s extraordinary life story and giving way to interjections from the storyteller.
As the show goes on, however, and we receive more and more direct addresses from the (never named) modern-day black actress, this character gradually diverges further from Jumbo and the truth of her escalating confessions is thrown into deliberate doubt. (Small disclaimer: I interviewed Jumbo before seeing the show and was therefore perhaps better placed to discern what was “real” and what wasn’t, but the framing makes it fairly clear that this is not in fact Jumbo speaking – or at least not always) Some aspects of the character tally with what we might know about Jumbo, although that of course depends on an audience’s familiarity with the performer’s background, but others are evidently fictional. Which is where the framing of the piece begins to become unstuck.
There are entirely understandable reasons why Jumbo has adopted this approach. Beyond the obvious vulnerability inherent in exposing oneself, unmasked, to an audience, there are important points that the show attempts to make through the parallels drawn between Baker and her modern-day narrator. As well as questioning the nature of success and how that success is judged by others, the show uncovers the race and gender-related prejudices that continue to persist today, while throwing in a central dilemma to trouble the “have it all” philosophy that modern women are so often fed. But the central themes, one suspects, would peek through the narrative without the occasionally heavy-handed fabrications, which run the risk of undermining themselves through the doubt that they cast on the rest of the show. I find myself wondering if it might be more interesting to see Jumbo’s unadorned take on Baker, framed with her own experience.
Instead, what we are left with are questions that deflect interest away from Jumbo’s political points rather than enhancing them. Is this Jumbo speaking, or is this a fictional character whose thoughts are being expressed? Are we watching Baker, or are we watching a version of Baker that serves the motivations of the character portraying her – or indeed the motivations of Jumbo herself?
Differently structured, the tension and uncertainty between these layers could be intriguing and productive in their own right. Unfortunately, Jumbo’s device is not quite cheeky enough to make an arch comment on its own meta-theatricality and not quite persuasive enough to tug us along with its semi-fictional heroine regardless. Instead we are left slightly dislocated, ricocheting between Jumbo’s real and fictional selves while increasingly doubting the veracity of everything we’re told. Which is perhaps the point – there’s definitely something interesting to be said about the constructed public persona, particularly when considering such a chameleonic figure as Baker – but its articulation is unclear.
What saves the piece – perhaps ironically – is Jumbo herself. She is a consummate performer, papering over any cracks in the piece with energy, humour and sheer, incandescent charisma. A cynical perspective might write this off as a simple showcase, calculated to allow its star to shine as blindingly as possible, but Jumbo’s obvious passion for her subject dispels such ungenerous doubts. She throws herself into every last jazz number and dance move with tireless intensity (not easy in this heat), while effortlessly morphing from character to character, voice to voice – as much a master of reinvention as Baker herself. She’s also naturally funny, lending an easy conversational charm to the segments in which she addresses the audience.
The only problem with Jumbo’s intoxicating stage presence that it occasionally threatens to obscure Baker, whose story she is so intent on telling – and, for the most part, tells with dazzling force. As presented here, it’s not hard to see why Jumbo was compelled by Baker’s remarkable life. This was a woman who had already been in and out of two marriages and performed on Broadway before becoming a celebrity in Paris at the age of 19, where she moved in starry artistic circles that included Picasso and Ernest Hemingway. During the Second World War she played a key role in the French Resistance and in the following decades she supported the American Civil Rights Movement while creating her own “rainbow tribe” of adopted children from around the globe. For once the phrase “you couldn’t make it up” feels justified.
In the process of retracing this astonishing life, we’re left in no doubt that Jumbo is an extraordinary performer, and although my criticisms might suggest otherwise, this remains an engaging and entertaining show. The cabaret set-up of director Phyllida Lloyd’s production is perfectly judged and the best sequences are those in which Jumbo joyously embraces the staging, venturing out into the audience and fully occupying the role of entertainer. In fact, Jumbo herself is so winning that it seems a tad churlish to lodge so many objections to the piece she has painstakingly crafted. Whatever popular opinion might suggest to the contrary, it’s never nice to feel mean as a critic.
There’s one startling, standout moment, however, that neatly points up the flaws elsewhere. Reading from the reviews that Baker received upon her return to New York after making her name in Paris, the shocking racist content stretches almost seamlessly into a comment that Jumbo reveals, in a gut-punching transition, to have been posted on a profile on the Observer website just last year. Here, through a precise and disturbing jolt, the entire thematic heft of the piece is loaded onto a few bigoted words, illustrating just how far we still have to go. Unlike the clumsy shifts and laboured parallels elsewhere, this scene administers raw, immediate shock. Sometimes, the more simple and bare the statement, the greater the punch.
Photo: Max Narula.