“I wanna be the lead. I wanna be the star,” Cush Jumbo says while performing as Josephine Baker in her new solo show Josephine And I at the Bush theatre.
Jumbo has already proved herself to be something of a star, having received an Olivier Award nomination earlier this year for her performance in Phyllida Lloyd’s production of Julius Caesar at the Donmar Warehouse, but in her latest theatrical appearance, she demonstrates that she can dominate a stage singlehandedly, not to mention create her own piece of engaging theatre by putting pen to paper.
Her writing debut, which sees her reunited with Lloyd, intersperses the life of African American jazz entertainer Baker with that of a young woman on the brink of hitting the big time who begins by telling the audience of her recent audition in which she is competing with one other actress to take the lead in a hit American television series.
Jumbo vividly conveys the duality of the production, taking on a variety of different emotions and accents to convey the two characters at the heart of her play. Portraying her persistence and determination in the face of racial discrimination, the show encompasses the duration of Baker’s personal life and career, from her initial struggle for a part in a chorus line through the divorces, standing ovations, political speeches and Picasso paintings to her last days in destitution striving to provide for her 12 adopted children.
While the ‘Josephine’ half of the play is a focused exploration of Baker by a woman who clearly had a lifelong interest in the international icon, the ‘I’ is less clear-cut, merging the story of an unnamed woman torn between her personal relationships and her profession with snippets of autobiographical material such as Jumbo’s reaction to the racist comment left on her profile when she performed at the Donmar Warehouse in 2012.
The actress fascinates in all aspects of her performance, be it the singing, acting or dancing, but what stands out is the production’s striking dichotomy and the air of spontaneity, like that of an off-the-cuff stand-up comedy routine, that is evoked in the transformation from ‘Josephine’ to ‘I’ and leaves you questioning what is and isn’t supposed to happen.
Staged cabaret style with the audience sitting at candle-lit tables, Josephine And I is an innovative and inspiring piece of theatre that oozes Jumbo’s infectious and likeable personality while educating the audience on the life of one of the most captivating and admirable women ever to break into the entertainment industry.