Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Once Upon a Time... Josephine Baker
Yellow Tree Theatre / New Dawn Theatre
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Austene Van
Photo by Alex Clark
The "Black Venus", the "Black Pearl", the "Bronze Venus", and the "Creole Goddess" are among the luxuriant sobriquets by which Josephine Baker was known. Baker, who was born in St. Louis and broke into show business in New York at the dawn of the Harlem Renaissance, but lived most of her adult life in France, had one of the most peculiar career journeys of anyone who could rightfully be called a superstar. Who else became the toast of Paris dancing in nothing but a string of pearls and a banana ring skirt, spied for the French resistance during World War II, and was named a Chevalier of the Légion d'honneur by General Charles de Gaulle, derailed a triumphant post-war return to America by starting a nasty war of words with powerful newspaper columnist Walter Winchell, was the only woman invited to address the throng at the 1963 March on Washington led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and was invited by Coretta Scott King to assume leadership of the American civil rights movement after Dr. King's assassination–an invitation she declined in order to remain close to her twelve adopted children?

Baker's career and her life–the two were intimately intertwined–are the subject of Once Upon a Time...Josephine Baker!, a new play with music, written by and starring Austene Van. The show's world premiere is the season closer at Yellow Tree Theatre (where Van serves as executive artistic director) in a co-production with New Dawn Theatre. The opportunity to learn about this mesmerizing, enigmatic cultural icon, and to witness Ms. Van deliver one of the crowning performances of the 2023-2024 season make the trip to Yellow Tree's playhouse in Osseo well worth the drive.

We find Josephine (Van) in 1975 in a Parisian dressing room where, the previous night, she had delivered yet another fabulous comeback performance. Nearing the end of her seventh decade, she is writing her life story. Now, she declares, she is ready to tell the truth about her life, by which she means a chronicle of memories clouded by an agonizingly painful childhood, unrelenting American racism, a string of four husbands she could scant keep track of, and a belief that she had been chosen to lead the Earth's people out of racism–the latter her rationale for adopting twelve children of all different races, whom she refers to as "the rainbow tribe." As she relates her story, she never refers to herself but to a wondrous unnamed princess, heroine of an epic fairy tale who is forever doing battle with ogres and witches, put to cruel tests, and challenged to establish dominion in her own land.

Josephine dictates this story to her newly arrived assistant, Mackenzie (Tolu Ekisola), who goes by Mac, but who she insists on calling Penny, the name of her last, or perhaps her first, assistant, all of them being "the new Penny." Mac is an African American college student at an historically Black college who sought this placement as Josephine's editorial assistant to hone the journalistic skills she intends to use to tear down the racism that Josephine had fled by moving to France fifty years ago.

Josephine tells Mac that she wants to create a "pop-up book" rendition of her life to instruct young girls on the possibility of realizing their dreams, as she has realized hers. Mac is skeptical of this premise. She is smart, scrappy, and expects respect, all of which put her at odds with her employer, especially when she pushes back on obvious falsehoods the prima donna wants her to commit to paper. Josephine is clearly accustomed to being able to intimidate her assistants, but in Mac she encounters a new breed of confident, young Black woman who intends to confront racism head-on, rather than construct a fairy tale (even if the fairy tale contains kernels of truth) as an alternative to it.

In addition to Josephine and Mac, Once Upon a Time introduces us to Josephine's musical director, Douglas, whom she calls Percy (JoeNathan Thomas), who patiently awaits her descent from the dressing room while she is sidetracked telling her fairy-tale life to Mac. On occasion, Douglas briefs Mac on how to properly consider the magnificent, ferocious, and damaged woman with whom she is dealing.

We also encounter "Count" Giuseppe Pepito Abatino (Jim Lichtscheidl), who conned Josephine into becoming both her manager and her lover. It was under Pepito's management that she took intensive vocal lessons enabling her to perform at the opera, and that she appeared in several movies, becoming the first Black woman to have the lead role in a commercial film. Pepito may have been Josephine's one true love, given the evidence of Van's singing of the Chris Smith, Sterling Grant and Al Neiburg chestnut "(I'm) Confessin' (That I Love You)."

That heartrending scene isn't Once Upon a Time's first, nor its last, musical interlude. Music was a big part of Josephine Baker's life and is interspersed throughout the play. When Josephine finally makes it down from her dressing room, having exchanged her satiny, fur-trimmed dressing gown for the legendary banana skirt and pearls, she dances in the style that first made her a legend to music by Van and composer/music director Jeff Bailey. In addition to being a fine actor, Van is a noted dancer and choreographer, and she delivers this number with loose-limbed abandon and grace, making sure anyone watching knows what all the fuss is about.

Later, when her dream of an American career resurrection is crushed, Mac and Percy consider the heartache Josephine has endured, with a bluesy take of an old field tune "This World Is a Mean World," expressing in song more than any text could offer. Other musical interludes give us Cole Porter's "Night and Day," Ray Henderson and Mort Dixon's "Bye Bye Blackbird," and Sam Manning's provocative "Tomato." The second act brings what may well have been Baker's theme song, "J'ai Deux Amours" (by Vincente Baptiste Scotto, Henri Varna, and Géo Koger), in which the diva declares her two great loves: her country (America) and her city (Paris). The final musical piece is a heartfelt original by Van (lyrics) and Bailey (music) titled "Open My Eyes," a moving expression of Josephine's reflections on her life as the curtain comes down.

Van's performance as Josephine Baker is a triumph, expressing the legendary star's confidence and arrogance, while also exposing her underlying insecurity and a yearning for love traced back to her earliest years. She can deliver a sharp quip, erupt with fury at the least slight, and melt into heartache with equal aplomb. It is no surprise that this larger-than-life woman overshadows the other characters, but Ekisola turns in a solid performance as Mac, with her empowered take on reality striking a marked contrast to Baker's carefully curated reckoning of her tumultuous life. Thomas brings warmth to Percy, a character asked to both admire Josephine and give an account of her flaws. Lichtscheidl, who portrays Pepito as well as one of Baker's husbands, depicted somewhat comically as a medieval knight in one of her fairy-tale accounts of her life, does well in both parts.

The show manages the pivots between Josephine's fantasized narratives–accompanied by the flickering light of early films, like the ones the star herself appeared in–and the present moment in which Josephine's account of her saga is challenged by Mac, even as Mac develops an appreciation for her temperamental employer. The concluding scene makes a completely unexpected–at least to this reviewer–turn, which rings true.

Sarah Bradner's set design serves the production well, with the dressing room above the cabaret floor on which Josephine performs for her audience as well as where she enacts the fables she spins from the jagged shards of her life. Samantha Fromm Haddow's costumes clothe Josephine in the expected level of elegance, give Mac a grounding in the reality of 1975, and serve the other characters well. Kathy Maxwell's lighting provides essential nuance to Josephine's story-telling, and casts an almost harsh light on her in performance, as if to emphasize the tremendous effort she applies to maintain her public persona.

Van has written sharp dialogue that conveys the dual reality of Baker's life, as filtered by the well-grounded Mac, and Josephine's embroidered sense of how that life was experienced and the meaning it held for her. The one stumbling block is Baker's continued insistence on stripping Mac of her name and calling her "Penny." For one thing, this grows old as it repeatedly brings to mind the running joke in The Devil Wears Prada, in which a dragon lady played by Meryl Streep insists on calling Anne Hathaway's character, Andi, "the new Emily." Moreover, given that Josephine has worked so hard to lift her name up from the anonymity of the chorus line, would she not have an appreciation for the unique personhood of others? Perhaps fame had made her too self-absorbed to see that, but it disappoints me that the extremely astute Mac does not confront her on it.

That small distraction aside, Once Upon a Time...Josephine Baker! is a wondrous accomplishment. The title reads like a master of ceremonies' introduction of a really hot act, only instead of "Live and in person, on our stage... (fill in A-List star)," this introduction acknowledges the fact that Baker is an artifact of another time. Yet, Baker's star is undiminished–the exclamation mark after her name insists upon that–as we learn about the barriers she broke and the dreams she realized during her glamorous and ferocious sixty-eight years of life.

Once Upon a Time...Josephine Baker, a co-production of Yellow Tree Theatre and New Dawn Theatre, runs through June 30, 2024, at Yellow Tree Theatre, 320 5th Ave SE, Osseo MN. For tickets and information, please call 763-493-8733 or visit

Playwright: Austene Van; Director: Maija Garcia; Set Design: Sarah Brandner; Costume Designer: Samantha Fromm Haddow; Music Director/Composer/Sound Designer: Jeff Bailey; Props Designer/ Technical Director: Brandt Roberts; Lighting Design: Kathy Maxwell; Voice Coach: Thomasina Petrus; Stage Manager: Charles Fraser; Assistant Stage Manager: Ani Tonoyan; Production Manager: Brandon Raghu.

Cast: Tolu Ekisola (Mac), Jim Lichtscheidl (Henry/Pepito), JoeNathan Thomas (Percy/Announcer), Austene Van (Josephine Baker).