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Exclusive: Cush Jumbo on creating Josephine And I

Published 18 July 2013

As her debut play opens at the Bush, Olivier Award nominee Cush Jumbo shares the personal story behind Josephine And I:

My dog Henry is curled up on the sofa and he is giving me that funny look again. I guess there is something about learning your lines out loud that will never look normal to people or animals. I’ve had Henry for four years so he’s become rather accustomed to watching me talk to myself. This time, however, I think Henry senses there is something unusual about the job and he’d be right. Writing a one-woman show is one thing. Acting in one is another. I’m doing both and I have to admit, it’s scary going it alone.

I’ve always been interested in Josephine Baker. I became a little obsessed by her as a child because I thought she looked like me. As I got older I found out more and more about her that fascinated me. This woman was Michael Jackson and Angelina Jolie rolled into one, she was astounding and I hoped that one day somebody would put her story on paper so I could beg for the chance to play her. I never thought that person would turn out to be me.

I’d written mini plays and poems and comedy skits since I was a kid but I never thought of myself as a serious writer. After training at drama school I thought of it even less because everybody saw me as an actor. It never occurred to me that I could be both until it happened by accident. I did a long stint of acting work that I didn’t enjoy. I felt stuck in a rut, creatively stunted and unhappy. I’d lost all sense of why I’d chosen to do this job in the first place. That summer I decided to give up acting and retrain as a teacher, which seems so crazy now but that’s how low I was feeling. As a kind of goodbye to acting I wrote a short piece about Josephine Baker, which later became the seed for Josephine And I. I hired a pub theatre in Camden that seated about 30 people and I performed the short piece for six nights.

I don’t really know how to explain what happened next but it involved Twitter, some helpful advice, a load of meetings about Josephine And I and a deal at the Bush, changing agents and a lots of wonderful acting jobs, which culminated in me sitting at the Oliver Awards this year because I’d been nominated for Best Supporting Actress (for Julius Caesar at the Donmar) looking over at the beautiful Kristin Scott Thomas and thinking “How on EARTH did I get here?” It was while rehearsing Julius Caesar that I got up enough courage to ask Phyllida LIoyd, our director, for feedback on a draft of Josephine And I. Phyllida read it and said she was interested in directing it, I nearly fell off my chair.

All of this came about because I decided to give up acting. It makes me think that sometimes a shock to the system is not a bad thing. It may restart the car in a way you could never have imagined.

My dog Henry has jumped off the sofa and gone to his bed. Maybe it’s because I’m singing Josephine Baker songs too loudly in our front room. Or maybe it’s because he knows that from now on I’ll be absolutely fine by myself.

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