Josephine: A Burlesque Cabaret Dream Play
starring Tymisha Harris
Created by Tymisha Harris, Todd Kimbro, and Mike Marinachio
Renaissance Theatre Company • Orlando, Florida
by Carl F. Gauze
This show has been around since 2017, and it gets better and better. Tonight it’s on the big stage in the big room of Orlando’s Ren Theater. The house is packed, drinks flowing, and the dark and ominous set glowers with red lights that go all the way up to the industrial ceiling.
We meet Miss Josephine Baker (Tymisha Harris) as she winds down after a supposed show that precedes us, and as she relaxes from that exercise, she acts out the story of her complex life. Born in St. Louis, she was raised in the worst of the Jim Crow era. Lynchings, rapes, and crappy jobs with crappy pay were the order of the day for Black people. But Josephine could sing, and she fled to New York, where she performed during the Harlem Renaissance. Segregation was a little less brutal up there, and she found work.
Her big score was hooking up with a French promoter who invited her to Paris. He was a rogue and a charlatan, but he had one redeeming feature: he got Baker to Europe at the hight of the Jazz Age, and with no Jim Crow laws in France, she was completely accepted and adored. Coolest of all, she spied for the french during WWII and was never stopped by the Nazis. She foolishly returned to America at this time and was not well received.
The production is polished and sharp. Miss Harris flirts and dances and slides behind a screen as she talks through the costume changes like the pro she is. The house is packed, the ceiling high and illuminated with red bordello-style lights. Each segment of her performance holds its charms, ranging from Jim Crow horrors, escape to Paris, her variety of husbands and other lovers, and her later years and adoptions. Her runway stage thrusts far out into the crowd as a pack of musicians huddle below providing a live soundtrack, and at the end she cleans up with a well-deserved ovation.
I highly recommend this show. It’s a perfect mix of theater, history, and progress. And while it may be rude to crawl over you seatmate while the show is running, the bar remains open. That’s not a problem, it’s a feature.