By Bryson David Hoff
If you could go back in time to see one deceased performer in concert, who would it be?
Fans of classic rock might choose John Lennon or Freddie Mercury while opera fans would likely select Maria Callas or Enrico Caruso. However, for a select group of enthusiasts of early jazz and cabaret music, Josephine Baker would be high on the list. For that set, Black Pearl at the Black Ensemble Theater is the next best thing.
Part musical revue, part biography of the American-born French superstar, writer-director Daryl D. Brooks’s new production sparks with the same energy and enthusiasm apparent in the surviving footage of his subject’s performances. His cast carries the breakneck trip through Baker’s life with ease and grace, despite the show’s complex demands both on their dancing abilities and their dramatic chops, as each member of the cast is tasked with both chorus line duties for the musical numbers and filling in the figures in Baker’s life during the biographical scenes. All are more than equal to the task and deserve their individual bows come curtain call.
A biographical show, however, hinges on the performances of its lead, here split between Aeriel Williams, who portrays Baker during her early career, and Joan Ruffin, who takes over for her in the latter years of her career, as well as acting as narrator and emcee for the evening. The decision to split the role makes sense given the length of time covered (Baker, after all, performed nearly continuously from the age of 13 until her death at age 68), as well as from the standpoint of allowing jumps in time to be covered by Ruffin’s narration.
The split also allows for a more complete picture of Baker’s talents as a performer, as Williams’ athleticism makes a convincing case for Baker’s initial rise to fame as a dancer, while Ruffin’s impressive vocal gifts and storytelling abilities give the audience an insight into her ability to sustain her icon status into her later life.
Both are given equal weight in terms of showcase moments; Williams is uncanny in her recreation of the young Baker’s idiosyncratic “ostrich dance” and her interpretation of the iconic “Danse Sauvage” that first brought her to prominence in the Parisian nightclub scene. Meanwhile, Ruffin’s performance of “My Way” in the concert at Carnegie Hall a few months before Baker’s death is a true vocal highlight of the production.
Ironically, the show’s only shortcoming might be the sheer scope of Baker’s resume. Some people lead lives of such varied adventure, that encapsulating it all in one book, film, or play, runs the risk of bursting at the seams because of all the fascinating episodes that simply can’t be ignored. This is not a catastrophic failure by any means, however there are instances where occurrences in Baker’s life, so tantalizing they beg further investigation, have to be rushed through in the interest of keeping the show at a manageable length.
For instance, Baker’s time spent as a spy for the French Resistance during World War II, which could make for a whole play in and of itself, is condensed into a five-minute scene late in the second act. So, too, her work with Coretta Scott King in the civil rights movement is only casually mentioned in the closing monologue. Her friendship with Grace Kelly, eventually Princess Grace of Monaco, is abridged only to include the Princess’s providing her with patronage after her bankruptcy in the late 1960s.
This is, of course, understandable, given that in a comprehensive look at Baker’s life not every chapter can be given a full examination. However some facts are too interesting to just be stated with no elaboration. To Brooks’ credit, however, his stated intent, as articulated in his curtain speech at the press opening, is to bring Baker’s story to Chicago audiences as a celebration of her remarkable life story.
If taken as a survey course in the career of a great entertainer, a jumping off point to inspire further study, Black Pearl is an unqualified success.
Black Ensemble Theatre presents “Black Pearl: A Tribute to Josephine Baker” through June 25 at 4450 N Clark St.
Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.