Friday, June 14, 2024

"Once Upon a Time... Josephine Baker!" at Yellow Tree Theatre

In the new play with music Once Upon a Time... Josephine Baker! at Yellow Tree Theatre, written by and starring Artistic Director Austene Van, we get an overview of the fascinating life of Josephine Baker. It plays out like a dream, which leads to more curiosity about this inspiring and ground-breaking woman, who left the racism of America behind to become a star in Paris in the early 20th Century, while still continuing to fight for Civil Rights. This production gives us a glimpse into her difficult childhood, her many marriages, her work as a spy during WWII, her talent, and the human behind the legend. See it in Osseo Wednesdays through Sundays until June 30.

The play is set in 1975 during Josephine's final show in Paris, celebrating her 50-year career. She's also working on her memoir, and dictates it to her new assistant Mac, an aspiring magazine writer from the US. She speaks about her life as a fairy tale, referring to herself as a princess, and her encounters with knights and evil forces. While she's telling stories, some people from her past appear like ghosts or dream figures, and we see some of these stories play out. Interspersed with the stories, we get to see a few of Josephine's performances as she rehearses for her show. Weaving in and out of fantasy and reality, the picture of a life slowly comes into focus.

Austene Van as Josephine Baker (photo by Alex Clark)
Austene gives a fearless and layered performance as Josephine, fully inhabiting this complex character - her talent, her love for her children (she adopted twelve of them!), her quickness to anger, and above all her determination to be the person and the artist she wanted to be. From Austene's first performance in the infamous banana costume, a fast Charleston-inspired dance, to more tender songs, we believe that she is "Jo." But this is not a one-woman show; Austene is surrounded by three talented supporting actors who add depth and dimension to the story. Tolu Ekisola as Mac is a great sparring partner, in awe of the legend but not afraid to go toe-to-toe with her. JoeNathan Thomas plays a small but pivotal role as her friend and bandleader, often remaining onstage even when not in the scene. Rounding out the cast is the ever delightful Jim Lichtscheidl, once again displaying his talent for transforming into different specific characters, as he pops in and out of Josephine's story playing her husbands, managers, or other figures in her life.

Austene Van and Jim Lichtsheidl (photo by Alex Clark)
Josephine's Paris apartment above a bar is represented on the Yellow Tree stage with a raised platform holding a bed, desk, and an overflowing wardrobe. In the lower part of the stage is the bar area, scenes flowing smoothly between them (directed by Maija Garcia). There's no live music, but the live singing mixes well with the recorded music tracks. And Josephine's iconic costumes are stunningly recreated here, with Austene changing onstage from her flowy feathered robe into ever more outrageous costumes, complete with wigs and head pieces. (Scenic design by Sarah Brander, costume design by Samantha Fromm Haddow, composition and sound design by Jeff Bailey.)

Once Upon a Time... is funny and inspiring, and makes you want to learn more about this fascinating woman who forged her own path in life. Before seeing this play I knew a few facts about her, but now I have a fuller picture of her as a human and a performer. She was truly one of a kind, and this production brings her to life for a fleeting moment.