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Tymisha Harris reprises her role as Josephine Baker in Josephine: A Burlesque Cabaret Dream Play

by Rita Kohn
September 28, 2017
SoHo Playhouse
15 Vandam Street
New York, NY 10013
(212) 691-1555
Josephine Baker returns to New York City, Sept. 29-Oct. 3, 2017, her vibrant spirit making the leap through time and space within an easy arc from her first appearance, in Shuffle Along at the [then] Sixty-third Street Theatre, in 1921, to the present. At SoHo Playhouse, Tymisha Harris is extending Baker’s autobiographical revues, Paris mes Amours and Josephine in a one-woman show created by Harris, Michael Marinaccio and Tod Kimbro.

Tymisha Harris, in Josephine: A Burlesque Cabaret Dream Play, ignites the same reactions from reviewers as did Josephine Baker in real life, with headlines shouting out, “Triple threat dancer, singer, actress.” In a trajectory similar to Baker’s, Harris has honed her natural talents into a tour de force embrace of Baker’s life and art, from a hardscrabble path to dance as an art form, to keen observation of how to connect with an audience, to a larger than life sense of humanity.

What sets Harris apart from others who glyph Baker, is the intelligence that underlies her embodiment. It’s not merely copying what Baker did, or how she did it. It’s the ingredient of ‘why’ that Harris embodies as a transmit from the real-life-subject to the re-enactment stage. Harris brings us into the decision-making. Baker did not ask the audience to breathe with her—she scoped the situation and breathed with them, and she moved at the pace they could absorb. She was jazz incarnate, improvising with the book wide open. What mesmerized her audiences was not audacity— she never set out to up-stage fellow chorus-liners; yet she extended and probed meaning with the slightest of nuanced movements, facial expressions, posture, and the energy shared was just right for that moment, and it wasn’t rote every time. Baker knew her natural talents, but she also knew interest in the exotic could turn on a dime; she studied with Balanchine, she took voice lessons, she established Chez Josephine as brands in Paris, Vienna, New York with food, drink, service and ambiance to invite return visits; she was as comfortable in the homes of leading artists, writers, heads of states throughout the mid-1950s, as she was in the alleys astride stage doors.

Harris comprehends this, transmits it, gives it up with joyful largesse. She toys with the audience, invites us into the key moments of Baker’s decision-making, unafraid to expose frailties, open to the love we’re willing to give. But don’t be lulled; Harris, like Baker, is on top of condescending attitudes, and she’s not about to suffer fools —gladly or otherwise.

The aspect of ‘burlesque’ Harris zeroes in on takes us into striptease as revelatory more so than risque. Underneath it all we are not unlike; different, yes, but not unlike. And therein lies the irony, another aspect of burlesque, wherein Baker herself mocked attitudes that infringed on the triad that sparked the French Revolution following in the aftermath of the American Revolt. We feel her hurt from an unwelcome return to the U.S. after she had earned stardom in Europe. And so it goes, with Harris as Baker sharing a meaningful life from childhood up to a mere two months shy of her 69th birthday.

Josephine is part of the SoHo Playhouse Fringe Encore Series showcasing the top 2017 programs presented at Fringe Festivals worldwide, with the final selection made by Off Broadway theatre producers, directors and promoters.

Josephine came to IndyFringe Theatre Festival for six performances, Aug. 17-26, 2017. They sold out. Harris nailed pre-sales when she turned a sound glitch during her 2-minute Fringe Preview into a show-stopper. Already a winner of BEST OF FEST and OUTSTANDING SOLO PERFORMANCE at the 2016 San Diego Fringe and declared the “breakout hit” at the Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival, Harris snatched the top five awards in Indianapolis: IndyFringe Talks Award for Outstanding National Performance, IndyFringe Talks Award for Outstanding Female Performance, Sold Out Award, Audience Choice Award and Most Tickets Sold. In its 12th season, this is the first such sweep at IndyFringe.

But this avalanche did not come as a surprise to George A. Wallace, IndyFringe Associate Director. Before moving to Indianapolis in 2016, Wallace saw Josephine as an independent production in Orlando, Fla. and recognized it as an excellent fit for Indianapolis' audience base.

“One of my favorite aspects of my job is seeing shows in its infancy and watching them continuing to develop and grow. IndyFringe plays an important role in Josephine's success because we are one of only three Fringe Festivals that presented this amazing play, along with San Diego and Winnipeg. I will see it again in San Diego as part of a Fringe showcase in November. I am interested to see how the piece has evolved from the first time I saw it in Orlando to the second time I saw it in Indianapolis.”

“It is worth noting that George has the ability to connect IndyFringe to shows like Josephine and attract them to a midwest midsize festival,” said Pauline Moffat, CEO Indy Fringe. “This is a strategic move on our part. George has been a VP for the Canadian Fringe Festival Association for about 8 years so he knows a lot of performers from Canada and around the world.”

Moffat underscores, “IndyFringe does not want to be the biggest in the midwest but the 'best'. By marketing to top performers on the Fringe circuit we can position ourselves as the festival with great artistic integrity. Our local performers learn from these visiting performers so the circle is complete. We can infuse new ideas and develop new talent not only for our own year-round programming but for all the small to medium theatre companies in the city.”

This current Indianapolis tie-in as a catalyst for generating exciting theatre has deep roots in the case of Josephine Baker. It was Indianapolis-native Noble Sissle, along with his fellow lyricist and composer Eubie Blake, who wrote a special part for teenaged Baker in their musical revue, Shuffle Along that opened May 1921 in New York City at…and here we are back at the beginning of this story with Baker, Sissle and Blake then heading to Paris and the rest is history. Yet serendipity took over while I was typing this column—a call from a long time friend —“What are you doing?” “Writing an article about Josephine Baker.” “Josephine! Dear Josephine! My father loved her!” “How’s that?” “Long story about WWI, my father was Chief Petty Officer in the Navy, stationed in London at the end of the War, making friends in London and Paris…coming home…going back to Paris in 1926 and going to a Revue and there was Josephine Baker… and then he and I went back to Paris on the Ile de France and people were throwing wreaths into the water in memory of Josephine …”

Did I mention the spirit of Josephine Baker resides among us, quite vividly in Indianapolis…as well as in New York and…

For more information and tickets visit: www.sohoplayhouse.com/event/7c48c33b429abc9654d031a852740186

Photo © & courtesy of VonHoffman


Photo © & courtesy of Sue Brenner


Photo © & courtesy of Sue Brenner


Photo © & courtesy of VonHoffman


Photo © & courtesy of Unknown

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