Black Pearl: A Tribute to Josephine Baker


Written & Directed by Daryl D. Brooks.Music Direction

Music Direction by Robert Roddricks.

Choreographer: Rueben Echoles.

At Black Ensemble, Chicago.

Wonderful biomusical unfolds the history of the legendary performer.

Written and directed by Daryl Brooks, Black Pearl: A Tribute to Josephine Baker does two things: it is a history of the plight of black entertainers in America in the early 20th Century as well as the story of how the French treated black entertainers in the 20/30’s. It is also the story of one very determined women: Josephine Baker, born in 1906, as Freda Josephine McDonald, she became an entertainer at age 13 after she ran away from being a servant to an abusive white woman’s home. At age 15 she worked in a  vaudeville act that we see in her dance number to Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag”.

As a rising dancer, Josephine attracted interest from Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake who cast her in  their1921 Broadway musical, Shuffle Along.  Her success on Broadway got her invited to move to Paris to be a part of the Jazz Age in Paris. Baker’s main motivation to go to Paris was the horrible discrimination she suffered in America and the liberal equal treatment of black in France. she became a superstar in Paris; the Parisian loved her. She performed nearly nude in her “Banana Dance” routine that delighted French audiences.

After returning to Broadway in the Follies in 1935 that was panned by critics, Baker returned after only one performance to Paris where she lived until her death in 1975 at age 68. Baker became a French citizen. She helped the French Resistance during World War II and when she,  occasionally worked in America, she insisted on full integration of audiences. Josephine Baker is presented as a larger-than-life hero and a tough woman.

What makes this biomusical work so well is the combination of terrific period dance numbers depicting traditional vaudeville, ragtime, and roaring twenties dances with outstanding performances by the two Josephine Bakers. We see Joan Ruffin, as the older Josephine as she narrates the Baker story deftly until she ‘becomes’ her. But the real star is Aerial Williams as the younger Josephine.  Aerial is a true beauty, a fabulous dancer/singer and an exquisite actor. She has a terrific stage presence that becomes electrifying. She has charm to spare yet is tough as need be. Aerial Williams gives a star-studded performance here.

Black Pearl: A Tribute to Josephine Baker has all the elements of a fabulous show: terrific songs, outstanding dance numbers, strong performances including the ensemble and a worthy story. I learned much about Josephine Baker while I was thrilled by the depiction of her life. Black Ensemble with Black Pearl: A Tribute to Josephine Baker and their recent The Nicholas Brothers show that they are committed to a ‘Dance Theater Season’. Expert dance showstoppers adds more reason to catch the shows at the Black Ensemble Theater.

Highly Recommended.

Tom Williams.

Date Reviewed: May 14, 2017.

Jeff Recommended.

For more info check out the Black Pearl: A Tribute to Josephine Baker page at theatreinchicago.com.

At Black Ensemble Theater, 4450 N. Clark, Chicago, IL, call 773-769-4451, www.blackensemble.org, tickets $55 – $65,  Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 3 & 8 pm, Sundays at 3 pm, running time is 2 hours, 15 minutes with intermission, through June 18, 2017.

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