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Josephine Baker tribute sparkles

By Jacob Coakley Special to the Daily Planet
Tuesday April 16, 2002

Last Friday night after a champagne gala the Berkeley Black Repertory Group premiered its "In Search of a Legend: A Tribute to Josephine Baker." Written and conceived by Johnny Land, directed and choreographed by Stephen Semien this musical revue exuberantly hits the highlights of Josephine’s life. Unfortunately, with an uneven cast and a thin script, this show never attains the heights of tribute it wishes to convey. 

The show begins with four Doo Wop singers – Sprandore Geford, Baraka Bey, F. Curtis Reed, Kenneth Brian Sullivan – recounting various exploits of Baker’s life: walking down the Champs Elysees with jaguars, singing into a rhinestone mic,, dancing above the Parisian crowd in a mirrored cage. They are full of awe and invite us to join them in a retrospective of Baker’s life.  

After the introduction we move to Baker’s childhood. "Li’l Josephine" is played with exuberance by Jade Johnston, who dances and sings well and fairly beams on stage. She is exhorted by the Doo-Wop men and the older "Chanteuse Josephine," played by Zorina London, to pursue her dreams and become a "queen."  

We then switch to Paris for the first act finale. Treated to a bevy of classic songs and a high-octane Charleston performance this number delivers all the spirit and energy you could hope for. Vickia Brinkley as Ethel Waters delivers a growling and fun "Go Back Where You Stayed Last Night" and Dawn Troupe as Josephine "Ingénue" leads the company in the spirited Charleston. 

The second act opens with a segment called "Legendary Josephine," and takes us from Josephine’s transformation from a scandalous ingénue to legendary chanteuse. Dawn Troupe shows off her dancing skills in an homage to the famous "Banana Dance" and Zorina London lets her diva loose in a number called "La Bakair," singing "Ma Vie en Rose."  

From there the show takes a documentary turn detailing the writer Johnny Land’s search to meet Josephine followed by a segment detailing Josephine’s persecuted yet ultimately triumphant return to America and her speech at Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington. The show closes with a re-creation of "La Bakair’s" last concerts at the Bobino.  

Because this is a revue, the script is hardly the most important element in the show. When using actual text from Josephine’s speeches the actors come to life and the words sing. But when the script switches to strained rhyming couplets for transitions and exposition, it suffers. Most of the performers’ voices are also assisted with wireless mics. However, one of the mic.’s on the Doo-Wop gentlemen refused to work throughout the show. Repeated attempts to bring up its level resulted in distortion and feedback several times. The performers’ voices ably filled the theatre’s hall which made me wonder why the mics were used at all. Ample credit should go to the costumer Jealousy, whose outfits for Josephine grow more spectacular as the night goes on, and Johnny Land for not only writing the show but with Aaron Bailey on drums, accompanying the performers throughout the night. 

Both Stephen Semien and Johnny Land write notes in the program detailing how much Josephine Baker has meant to them. I spoke with Mr. Land at intermission and he told me he hopes to continue working on this piece, to honor Josephine. With his dedication and this worthy beginning ultimately this show should do her justice.  



"In Search of a Legend" plays at the Berkeley Black Repertory Group’s home at 3201 Adeline St. in Berkeley, one block away from the Ashby BART station. Tickets can be purchased by calling 510-652-2120.