Category: Looking for Josephine (2)
It’s apt that Looking for Josephine made its American debut years after beginning in Paris and spreading across the European continent. The performance may be “about” the black American musical experience, but it’s written from a wholly European perspective. Sure, the cast is mostly black, the songs are based in black culture and history, and the time period runs from slavery to post-Katrina New Orleans, but this world is seen more from the eyes of the flamboyant French producer who serves as the re-created La Revue Nègre’s master of ceremonies. And though Josephine isn’t “about” black culture, that’s fine. Instead, it looks at France’s own troubled, conflicted history of racist entertainment.
The production was conceived by white male French writer/director Jérôme Savary, and from the looks of this show, he doesn’t seem to be shying away from controversy. Instead of realistically fleshed-out characters, Josepine features racially charged caricatures. Consider the New Orleans setting: “Old Joe,” a stereotype of the wise old black man, spends almost the whole performance in a raft looking for his piano, which he lost in the storm. The image of black Americans sitting in rafts after Katrina’s devastation is certainly provocative.
Or consider the more egregious (by design) racism inherent in a scene that parodies the “Mammy” archetype: a cleaning woman struts on stage with false teeth and an arched back, sweeping the floor of a speakeasy, her exaggerated movements eventually transforming into a quite beautiful ballet. We, the audience, balance our disdain for such an image with the allure and grace of the dance. Read more »
Josephine Baker’s story attracts me not just because she was a major talent and a bold human being, but also because she embodies a very sad story about America’s support of its artists. To this day, Europe is still a safe haven for American artists who don’t fit the creative status quo. Merce Cunningham and Robert Wilson are two artists who found notable careers in Paris before being considered for canonization by the cognoscenti of New York City.
With Ms. Baker, both race and artistic content converge. The French propelled Baker to stardom by embracing the stereotype of the exotic African. Baker knew her audience well and played to it. It was not merely her semi-nude shenanigans that shocked but also her deliberate use of African and even monkey-inspired moves that both entranced and repelled French audiences. Read more »