In 1936, after returning from a sojourn in France, Josephine Baker starred in the prestigious Ziegfeld Follies on Broadway. Among the reviewers was a New York Times critic who called her "a negro wench." After her role in the production finished, Baker returned to France within a year and became one of its most beloved citizens, as well as a permanent US ex-pat. She was awarded the Légion d'honneur, France's highest honour for her work with the French Resistance in World War II. In 1975, more than 20,000 people lined the streets to pay their last respects as her funeral procession made its way through the city of Paris. Honoured with a 21-gun salute, Baker became the first American woman buried in France with military honours.
It's not surprising then, that the woman who uttered, "You've got to fight every single day. When I see a roach, I step on it," would fight doggedly for civil rights in her native United States, despite being based in Paris. She refused to perform for segregated audiences in the US---in particular, Las Vegas---and is often referred to as the central reason why audience desegregation occurred there, which at the time was often referred to as the "Mississippi of the West."
Wearing her Free French uniform she stood at the side of Martin Luther King and spoke at the legendary march on Washington. Not only was she the only woman to do so, but King's widow, Coretta Scott King, was so impressed by Baker that she approached her after his assassination to assume the role as leader of the American civil rights movement. Baker, citing her 12 adopted children's need for a full-time mother, declined.
Leslie Carvery, the proprietor of Shake It Dance Studio since 2000 and the star of Atlantic Fringe show, Me & Josephine, lauds the fighting spirit and accomplishments of Baker and women like her: "Josephine Baker will live on forever and her fame will always be recognized. It has to be as she was so far ahead of her time back then. It will be only unfortunate to those who don't know or have not found her...there are tons of others similar to Jo and her story. Many, many African American women who were large and left the world better. I believe my mother, Linda Carvery, to be one of those women."
Carvery, a dancer, mother and entrepreneur, sees a lot of Baker in herself as well. She says, "I looked at my journey and adventures and felt totally alone, and then when I found Jo I felt a kinship and sisterhood of strength and survival."
It's that sort of spiritual kinship that led Carvery to embark on a one-woman performance that deftly interlaces elements of Baker's life and dance choreography with her own. Several times during Me & Josephine, there is no separation between Carvery and Baker. Carvery challenges audiences to determine what is born of her own experiences as a dancer and what is a product of Baker's experiences. It's a credit to Carvery that the differences are virtually indistinguishable. In introducing audiences to Baker, essentially becoming Baker's mouthpiece, she channels Baker. It's anambitious undertaking, successfully navigated because of Carvery's natural charm and aplomb.
Interactions with the audience cement Me & Josephine in a realm of originality. Free of pretension, wrought with enthusiasm and showcasing Carvery's wonderful talents as a dancer, the play becomes equally art and an exchange of ideas. The joy that Carvery gets out of the audience's reaction is evident when she recounts the standing ovation she received after she performed the play at the Africville reunion, or an ex-nun leaving after the performance singing Baker's "Don't Touch Me Tomatoes."
Carvery's previous work has focused almost exclusively on her abilities as a dancer, teacher and choreographer, so the one-woman play, which also incorporates a variety of media, has been quite a leap for her. The cabaret-style performance, which ran three times a week in May and every Friday in June at Shake It, is single-handedly performed by Carvery and run with some assistance from her son. She jokes that its do-it-yourself theme is caused by her inability to delegate, but there's also a utilitarian reason for it: "I wanted to make sure that I didn't depend on anyone and that the show could run as long as I was there."
Truly a labour of love for Carvery, she feels an obligation to "bring a light back on an amazing person who has been overlooked...there are many women I feel connections with, but none like Jo who I can say moved me into the frenzy that created the show." a
Me & Josephine, Thursday, August 28, 7:15pm; Friday, August 29, 6:45pm; Saturday, August 30, 9pm; Sunday, August 31, 5pm; Saturday, September 6, 2pm, 9pm; Sunday, September 7, 3:15pm. DANSpace, 1531 Grafton, $10.