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Theatre in Review: Josephine: A Burlesque Cabaret Dream Play/A Kind Shot

Top: Tymisha Harris. Bottom: Terri Mateer. Photo: James Hollywood.

This is the year of the solo show; I can't remember seeing so many of them in a single season, covering such a wide variety of topics. Two new offerings focus on the tumultuous real lives of women. Josephine Baker is the subject of Josephine: A Burlesque Cabaret Dream Play now playing at Soho Playhouse. Created by Tymisha Harris, Michael Marinaccio, and Tod Kimbro (who wrote the script), and performed by Harris, it is a brief (seventy-five-minute) piece -- really, a glorified cabaret act -- offering a fast bus tour through the high- and lowlights of the star's crowded, controversial career. These include her childhood in St. Louis; her early marriages (two before the age of fifteen); a Broadway debut in the groundbreaking all-black musical, Shuffle Along; a long run as the toast of Paris, begun when she sets the town on fire by performing in little more than a skirt lined with bananas; spy work for the Resistance; the feud with Walter Winchell; the cadre of adopted children known as the Rainbow Tribe; her embrace of the American civil rights movement; various husbands; and lovers of both sexes.

Josephine touches lightly on all these points, mostly in the service of painting a portrait of a woman ahead of her time in virtually every way. It's not quite hagiography -- it captures Baker's act-now-pay-later approach to life, which left a long trail of emotional chaos. And there are some sharply pointed observations: Arriving in Paris, barely knowing what to expect, she says, "I was sold the first time I got served by a white waiter. He was delicious." She describes passing messages for the Resistance by sewing them into her undergarments, confident that, as a celebrity, she wouldn't be examined too closely: "Imagine," she laughs, "the one person they don't strip search is the exhibitionist." There's a chilling encounter with Hermann Goering, who, in one of the all-time backhanded compliments, tells her, "Your beauty is a great exception to your race."

Harris, a skillful performer, offers a pretty fair version of that banana dance and capably handles a song list that includes, among other things, Baker's signature song, "J'ai Deux Amours," as well as "Blue Skies," "Minnie the Moocher," the Billie Holiday shocker, "Strange Fruit," and a little something called "Don't Touch Me Tomato." She transitions fairly well from the madcap, American-in-Paris It Girl, incapable of saying no to any delicious opportunity, to the sadder, wiser diva, who, having outlasted nearly everything -- money, lovers, family, feuds, race riots, and world wars -- offers an oracular version of Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are a-Changin'."

Still, Baker was a far more complicated woman than the show presents. Her feud with Winchell over the allegedly racist policies of New York's Stork Club may have been well-intentioned, but it allowed Winchell to reprint anti-Semitic passages from her memoirs, a point the script declines to make. Also, the show doesn't take a very critical view of the Rainbow Tribe, the dozen adopted children from various racial and ethnic backgrounds, created to provide the world with a model of brotherhood. The enterprise had its publicity-stunt aspects -- Baker farmed out the task of raising the children to others -- and it collapsed entirely when she ran low on funds. "I probably should have stopped at six," she says here, and that's putting it mildly.

Taken as a touring cabaret piece, Josephine has definite audience-pleasing aspects, including a couple of sequences in which she enlists audience members as lovers or fans, but its elaborate title seems to hint at broader, as-yet-unrealized, ambitions. The production could have used better lighting and costumes, and less-intrusive sound. The use of voiceovers to provide Josephine with dialogue partners is fine, but there's no need for the seemingly constant undercurrent of recorded music. Currently, Josephine works best as a brief introduction to its subject. There are other Josephine Baker shows in development; still, if Harris and company want to develop this further, they may have something both educational and diverting.

In A Kind Shot, at TBG Studio Theatre, Terri Mateer has a pretty wild story of her own to tell. Raised by an oddball, hippie-dippy mother -- in the fourth grade, she came home to find Mom and her friends examining each other's vaginas with flashlights and specula -- she demonstrated an aptitude for basketball at an early age, being urged on by Ike, one of her mother's tenants. Indeed, it may not be too much to say that basketball provided her with a stabilizing focus through a series of stormy times, many of them involving predatory adults and peers. There was "Uncle" Joe, who helped her apply to college before making her eat meat (she was a vegetarian) and sexually abusing her. Her female basketball coach at Rollins College told her that it was vitally necessary she become a lesbian, so she transferred to Florida State University, where the team's captain, an "all-American, grabbed me at a party and shoved her tongue down my throat." After that, she switched to rugby.

In Mateer's telling, she wanders Candide-like from one adventure to another, most of them marked by episodes of sexual harassment. She plays for a French women's team, only to bail when the coach wants to have his way with her. (Come on! It's the culture!" he says, by way of explanation.) She ends up in New York, where she becomes a fixture at the West Third Street basketball courts in Greenwich Village -- a venue suitable only for the gifted and strong of heart -- and tries to launch a career as a model and actress. She reconnects with Ike, who is now a photographer and agrees to help her. It's an uphill climb, in part due to Mateer's strangely literal cast of mind. Told that she has an interview for a pilot, she goes dressed like Amelia Earhart.

So much happens in A Kind Shot, it would be helpful if Mateer could contextualize her material better. Some really terrible things happen to her, but it's hard to assess their role in creating the woman standing before us. Some episodes are fuzzily rendered, including a long anecdote about how, attending a look-see for a photo shoot with a gender-fluid theme, she arrives at the wrong destination and ends up appearing, dressed more or less like a transvestite, in front a roomful of AA members. When, yet again, she finds herself in an abusive situation -- in Chicago, where she works at a design firm -- and she finally fights back, getting a good lawyer, one breathes a sigh of relief. (This episode, which involves an autographed plaster cast of the man's penis, really is one for the books.)

A Kind Shot ends happily -- and Mateer is never a less-than-affable presence -- but this is a remarkably unreflective example of a genre that demands self-examination. She remains oddly passive, never stopping to wonder how she ends up in so many terrible situations or why she simply walks away from them, swapping out one life for another. (Neither does she discuss the fact that she finds so many untrustworthy men to mentor her.) We never learn the fate of her mother, who quickly disappears from the narrative, never to return. She discusses starving herself after the first incidence of abuse, but declines to say when or how this ended. She says nothing about the early termination of her pro ball career, which surely must count as a great lost opportunity. All sorts of traumatic things happen to Mateer in A Kind Shot, but it is virtually impossible to assess their impact.

Audiences may respond -- as they did at the performance I attended -- to the unmistakably inspiring tale of a female survivor, but it's hard not to wish that Mateer had given this piece a longer, more probing look. She has quite a story to tell; she shouldn't throw away her shot just yet. -- David Barbour

(29 January 2018)

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