Entertainer and World War II heroine Josephine Baker packed enough excitement into her time on earth for probably at least three lives, but presenting a full picture of those nearly 70 years might be beyond the scope of the average musical. Wisely, collaborators Sherman Yellen and Wally Harper stuck to just five years or so of her remarkable story in the show Blackbird, now onstage in a Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe production.
This incredible woman, born in St. Louis into poverty and raised by a single mother, frequently living on the streets once she hit the age of 12, went on to great acclaim as a singer-dancer, especially in her adopted country of France (where she also aided the Resistance during World War II and, eventually, adopted a dozen children). But we meet Josie (Dhakeria Cunningham), as she’s called when young, as she alternates between helping her laundress mother (Ariel Blue) with other people’s clothes and escaping to dance for pennies in front of the Piggly Wiggly. At this point Josie’s already faced abuse at the hands of white employers (and she will go on to fight discrimination elsewhere). But her spirit is indomitable, and when she hooks up with a couple of vaudeville performers (Tsadok Porter and Nate Jacobs), she’s on her way to stardom, with a few obstacles and a short-lived marriage to a fellow performer (Michael Mendez) along the way.
The story is told mostly in song and a variety of musical styles, from ragtime to blues to jazz, and that’s when the performers, for the most part, are at their best. Everyone in the cast except Cunningham plays more than one role (including black and white characters). Blue is not only Josie’s mother (caring but harsh at times) but her sometime show biz friend, Big Bertha Smith, as well (and in the latter role gets to sing a couple of the show’s best songs, Pretty Is and Bertha’s Blues). Mendez is both her loving, left-behind husband and the Frenchman with whom the more sophisticated Josephine shacks up for a time in Paris.
Tsadok Porter, Cunningham and Nate Jacobs.
Too often when not singing, though, the performances are either stiff or overdone. Cunningham looks the part of Josie, even as an adolescent, and is a perpetually moving force onstage, changing costumes frequently in our view (including into that famous banana dance outfit). She’s got the spunk of Josie; she’s not quite as believable in the show’s second half, and with all the action she’s called upon to perform, her singing voice sometimes falters.
Ultimately, Blackbird is not as satisfying a look at Baker’s struggles and successes as one would wish. But it does give viewers some sense of this woman’s amazing journey. The production continues through May 20; for tickets call 366-1505 or go to wbttsrq.org.