As actress Tymisha Harris danced on stage topless with rubber bananas bound to her belt, the audience got a glimpse of what it must have been like to watch black cabaret sensation Josephine Baker.
“Josephine” is a one-woman play that debuted in 2016. Officials at the Faulkner Performing Arts Center presented the play Jan. 30 for one night only as part of the UofA’s celebration of Black History Month.
The crew is touring the globe showcasing the life of Josephine Baker, a black burlesque and cabaret performer and actress from St. Louis who gained international fame in the early-to-mid 20th century.
The play explores the life of Josephine, starting from her beginnings in St. Louis before navigating her rise to stardom as a performer. Audience members witnessed her fall out of the spotlight, serve as a mother to 12 adopted children and speak in the civil rights march on Washington in 1963.
Every quote in the show is made of Josephine’s actual words, ranging from things from her speeches to little notes she wrote, Harris said.
Harris, who previously worked as an assistant choreographer for N*SYNC, said she knew she was meant to be a performer from a young age growing up in El Paso, Texas.
“I think I’ve always been a performer,” Harris said. “I was always a dancer first and then singing kind of popped in there, then the acting just kind of fell into place.”
Harris was looking for a chance to exercise her talents when she created “Josephine” in 2015 with the help of Michael Marinaccio, director and producer, and Tod Kimbro, playwright and musical director, as a platform to showcase her dancing, singing and acting.
“Josephine’s was the perfect life to tell, especially in the climate that we were in,” Harris said.
The play ended after a soulful performance of “La Vie en Rose,” which was followed by a long standing ovation that brought tears to Harris’s eyes.
“It is so crazy and cool to see the number of people who leave the show that are fulfilled and changed,” Harris said.
The life of Josephine means freedom for people, Harris said. Josephine Baker found “freedom from American oppression” when she moved to France.
Josephine embodies a lot of what people think of as a strong woman, Harris said. She thinks that without Josephine Baker’s influence on the past, stars like Beyonce and Tina Turner would not be around.
The first public show at the Faulkner Performing Arts Center this season was “Martha Redbone” in November 2019, and the turnout was a bit lower than expected at around 200 while Josephine brought in around 400 attendees, said Emelia Barrick, operations manager for the Faulkner Performing Arts Center.
Denise Nemec, a UA alumna, and Cedar Middleton, a David W. Mullins Library librarian, attended the play because of the power of Josephine’s story, Nemec said.
“We hear often these adages and one of them is ‘Bloom where you’re planted,’” Nemec said, “and Josephine of course was planted in St. Louis, Missouri, and she wasn’t able… to bloom where she was planted.”
Harris and the “Josephine” crew will perform in Adelaide, Australia, from Feb. 14 to March 1.