Review: BLACK PEARL: A TRIBUTE TO JOSEPHINE BAKER at Black Ensemble Theater

Review: BLACK PEARL: A TRIBUTE TO JOSEPHINE BAKER at Black Ensemble Theater

Pictured: Joann Ruffin. Photo by Michael Courier. 

By Naima Dawson

It is hard to not feed the dimmest part of life when one’s spirit is muted by despair and disappointment. Josephine Baker drowned much of her hardship inside the wonders of music and dance in an effort to survive the plight of Jim Crow and being a Black woman in America. She took on a new life in Europe, where she could evolve and escape the harsh reality of racial hatred. She found a way to give birth to her dreams amid great adversity.
BLACK PEARL: A TRIBUTE TO JOSEPHINE BAKER, written and directed by Daryl D. Brooks, tells the audience everything it needs to know about Josephine Baker’s life. That was the troubling part for me. The play merely tells us through an omniscient older Baker, while a younger Baker gives us small reenactments of the past. The play neglects to birth imagination and creativity, which struck me as unusual for this brilliant and experienced ensemble.
For me, the play fails to capture the very essence and eccentric beauty that made Josephine Baker this international icon and activist who worked with the French Resistance. She was a woman with layers, and I can only imagine how difficult it might be to encapsulate those layers on stage. However, it is necessary to deliver her story with ingenuity and through the same extravagant means by which she lived life. I suppose I wanted more detail by way of performance and not compressed by a storyteller and old news clippings projected on stage. The set design was sparse and offered little support to the imagination.
Aside from the structural issue, Aerial Williams, who portrays the younger Baker, holds a great resemblance to her. Her voice is quite angelic, and she delivers each dance performance with such grace and liveliness. Joan Ruffin, as older Josephine (and the one to navigate us through Baker’s biography), is always a joy to watch Her charisma and vocals radiate the stage.
Under the musical direction of Robert Reddrick, the music is simply phenomenal.
I love the Black Ensemble and everything it offers, and much love and commitment go into the conception of each production, but this one was a slight disappointment. If you do not know the Josephine Baker story, this play will provide a solid narrative insight into her life.
BLACK  PEARL: A TRIBUTE TO JOSEPHINE BAKER runs through June 18th. For more info visit blackensebletheater.org.
About author

Naima Dawson

Naima Dawson is a published author, Chicago playwright, and professor. Her career accomplishments cover more than 20 years in Arts Entertainment. Her Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Columbia College Chicago and her Master of Education from DePaul University solidifies her ability to bridge the two worlds between Arts and Education. She is the writer and producer of Your Call! Late Night Improv & Sketch Comedy for Grown Folks, as seen in production at the Apollo Theater and The Mercury Theater.

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