Josephine Baker was some woman – born in poverty in St Louis in 1906, she became a star of the Folies Bergere in the 1920s, painted by Picasso, eulogised by Hemingway. In World War II she risked her life for the Resistance and fought segregation in 1950s America. In and out of marriages from the age of 13, she never found her romantic ideal, but she did own a chateau filled with a dozen children from different nations, her “rainbow tribe”.
Despite the richness of this story, Cush Jumbo isn’t interested in presenting a straightforward biography. Sure, she makes the most of the jazzy music of the period (with pianist Joseph Atkins playing a blast) and of Baker’s oddly angular, rhythmic, often comic, dancing style. Jumbo captures this (on the evidence of film clips) to a t. But what she’s really after is an exploration of the difference a black woman can make – now as well as then – and, incidentally, a celebration of the power of theatre to tell the human story. To do this she interleaves Baker’s life with that of a young black actress sharing some characteristics with Jumbo herself.
Under Phyllida Lloyd’s sympathetic direction, Jumbo is technically and emotionally sensational. Fresh from classic parts (including Mark Antony in Lloyd’s all-female Julius Caesar) she is at ease with both old-fashioned showbiz glamour and informal chat with the audience, who are seated at candle-lit tables. Shocks, surprises and political points are deftly popped in among the laughter and the glitz, all performed with consummate energy and invention. Like Baker, who has fascinated her all her life, Cush Jumbo is a star.