SRQ Magazine | May 2016
Rising from poverty in turn-of-the-century St. Louis to the most celebrated stages in Paris, through the French Resistance in World War II and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, the story of Josephine Baker is a transcontinental whirlwind of art, politics, intrigue and scandal, of righteousness and courage, made no less remarkable by the barriers broken as the first black international sex symbol. Celebrating the woman and her story, the Broadway-bound musical Josephine presents Baker at the height of her career in Paris, indulging an affair with the Swedish Crown Prince Gustav IV as the Germans moved ever closer. But first, the production enjoys its world premiere run this month at the Asolo Repertory Theatre with Grammy-nominated, platinum-selling R&B star Deborah Cox in the title role.
No late addition, Cox has been following—even shepherding—the project for years. She remembers early child becoming enamored with Baker’s story—a black woman who stood up and fought for equality, justice and what she wanted from life. The stories were simultaneously “fascinating” and “shocking,” Cox says, and she read more and more, biography after biography. But she never expected it would one day be preparation for the role of a lifetime—and all the baggage that comes with it. “It’s nerve-wracking doing a project like this because you’re portraying an actual person,” she says. “I just dive in. I stay focused and try to capture as much of the essence of the person as possible.” More books followed, but Cox also viewed reels of old footage, getting familiar with Baker’s voice and movements. Meeting with Harry Belafonte and dancers from Baker’s time at the Folies-Bergère—the still-standing, still-famous Parisian cabaret that was Baker’s stomping ground—she received their blessing, with Belafonte remarking how Cox “captured the spirit” of Baker in those days.
But it’s not all on Cox’s shoulders come curtain call; it takes a village to raise a child but a small country to put on a show. Two-time Tony Award nominee Joey McKneely returns to the Asolo as director, following a successful run of West Side Story, but a lot will be riding on the original music and lyrics from five-time Emmy Award and three-time Grammy nominee Stephen Dorff and Academy Award, Grammy and Golden Globe nominee and two-time Emmy Award winner John Bettis. “They absolutely nailed it and captured the time period, the story and the moment,” says Cox, describing the songs as “beautifully woven” through the script as a complimentary force “that propels the storytelling as much as the script drives it.” Working in conjunction, they illuminate Baker as a multi-faceted performer and person. “It’s very rare that you get this caliber of talent all on one project,” says Cox. “It’s as if the stars aligned.” But as the performer, it’s up to Cox to breathe life into Baker again, to bring truth to the character. “When I sing the songs, it’s going to be my interpretation of who Josephine is. When I dance, it’s my interpretation, my fluidity,” she says. “I can only hope that because of my truth and what I’m bringing that it will resonate and people will feel it.”
Preparing for the world premiere in Sarasota of what Cox will repeatedly refer to as a “once-in-a-lifetime” event, her last thoughts are of what the audience will make of what has been done. She hopes they’re inspired, but most of all that they know sometimes the world needs “a little bit of crazy, a little bit of fearlessness and a little bit of passion” to achieve its true heights.
Currently on stage at the Asolo Repertory Theatre, Josephine runs until May 29.