“How could I be a Communist? Have you seen how they dress in Moscow?”
There is always something of a thrill about feeling slightly ahead of the crowd though I think in the case of Cush Jumbo, that moment has now passed. Her increasingly high profile work at the Royal Exchange in Manchester along with roles at the National and Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female Julius Caesar for the Donmar have seen her star rise continually over recent years. And it has culminated at the Bush Theatre with Josephine and I, her debut play and a one woman tour-de-force which serves as firm notice that she is here to stay.
The Bush has been reconfigured into a cabaret bar, the likes of which Josephine Baker rose to fame in in the 1920s, but rather than presenting a straight biography of this remarkable woman, Jumbo intertwines another story, that of ‘I’. ‘I’ is Jumbo herself, or at least a version of her, and so parallels are consistently drawn between the experience of arguably the first African-American superstar and that of a young female actress on the cusp of a possibly similar breakthrough today. It’s a nifty device, albeit one that isn’t always necessarily as successful as it could be.
Jumbo’s deeply held respect and affection for Baker is obvious and her wide-ranging skills allow her to sing and dance up a storm to illuminate the charms that saw her rise to Paris stardom, Hollywood success and the heights of civil rights activism. And her dramatic skill lets her convey the insidious effects of racism that sadly plague both eras. But there’s no mistaking that Josephine’s story is much more fascinating than I’s – a lifetime of amazing achievement stacks up overwhelmingly against the trials of the modern-day actress, somewhat autobiographical but also a little too elusive to really grab in the same way.
But Josephine and I still casts a remarkable spell – Jumbo clearly playing to her own strengths under Lloyd’s assured direction once again – and proves a much-deserved showcase for this rather specially talented writer/performer. Just remember who saw her first 😉