There’s always one or two shows a season that come in and absolutely sweep ticket sales at the Ottawa Fringe simply based on word-of-mouth publicity. And if you’ve had a chance to hang out around the Skylounge at all this year, then you’ll know that Josephine, a burlesque cabaret dream play is one of these shows. People can not stop talking about this piece and it’s not difficult to see why: a true masterclass in what being a triple threat performer really means, this is easily one of the strongest productions at this year’s festival.
Josephine is a musical history of the life and times of American-born French entertainer, activist, and French Resistance agent, Josephine Baker. Sitting in one of the few 90 minute slots, this production spares no expense with the details taking us on a thrilling journey from young Josephine running through the race riots in St. Louis; through her first of many burlesque performances; to her big break in Paris which cemented her relationship with the people of France; and her relationships with the crème de la crème of the artists and intellectuals at the time, including her relationship with the late Frida Kahlo. It further details her work with the French Resistance during WWII, her work later in life as an activist and speaking alongside Martin Luther King at the March on Washington, and finally her passing.
The life of this incredible woman is played by the super talented Tymisha Harris. Harris’ resume reads like a #90sKid dream: former assistant choreographer to N*Sync, backup dancer to LFO, and a featured role in the hit movie series Bring It On; so it’s really no wonder why she exudes such an air of professionalism on stage. The second she walks out on stage she captures your attention with her confident presence and she never lets it go. Showing off her excellent choreography and vocal work, Harris reenacts many of Baker’s acts including the “Danse Sauvage” (including the infamous banana skirt) and a chilling rendition of “Strange Fruit”.
Josephine also acts as a thoughtful reflection on race and racism in both the United States and France during much of the 20th century. Harris demonstrates this by way of noting the audience’s positive reaction to a song from the Broadway musical revue Zeigfeld Follies and letting us know that in 1936 audiences “were not that nice” followed by a recording of the actual Time magazine review that called her a “Negro wench…whose dancing and singing might be topped anywhere outside of Paris”. It was that performance that inspired Baker to renounce her American citizenship and become a French national, where the people were much more willing to accept a black woman on stage. Baker’s story finds echoes in 2018 where some people are still unwilling to accept women of colour in lead roles in major franchises to the point of extreme online harassment (most notably Leslie Jones of Ghostbusters and Kelly Marie Tran of Star Wars: The Last Jedi) and we are encouraged to ask ourselves how far have we really come?
This show is pure excellence from top to bottom: it features a nearly virtuosic performance that tells the story behind one of history’s most interesting performers and, really, what more could you want from a Fringe show? Don’t leave it to the last minute, buy your tickets now because it’s a sure sell-out!
Josephine, a burlesque dream play
Performed by Tymisha Harris
Directed and Produced by Michael Marinaccio
Book and Music Direction by Todd Kimbro
Venue 3: Academic Hall