Watching “Black Pearl, A Tribute to Josephine Baker” at The Black Ensemble Theater last week took me back to France.
2015. April in Paris was unforgettable but spring in the Dordogne was bewitching. The Dordogne River winds through Southwestern France slicing through valleys and hills. River towns and hill towns that sprung up a thousand years ago boast Chateaus that to an American eye are better described as castles. While soaking up wine and the delicacies of the region, I decided to visit La Chateau des Milandes, a castle that became famous as the home of the singer and dancer Josephine Baker.
The chateau has been preserved as a museum in her honor and houses her elaborate costumes and a detailed introduction to one of the most remarkable lives of the 20th century.
The experience of walking through this architectural landmark served as a mental backdrop as I watched the unlikely ascendance of Josephine Baker unfold on the stage of The Black Ensemble Theater.
Her story began in St. Louis in 1906 where she was born to poverty. When she was 8 years old, she was sent to live with a white family as a washerwoman. They allowed her to sleep on the kitchen floor with the family dogs. Her youth and helplessness made her an easy target.
Josephine Baker is played by two actresses to cover the range of her life. Aeriel Williams plays the fledgling superstar whose joy and enthusiasm will face an unforgiving world.
It is Joan Ruffin, who portrays the older and wiser Baker, a woman who fiercely resists Jim Crow in America, an America where the stodgy Time Magazine describes her as a “Negro wench.”
She was a 14 year old girl who survived abuse and the virulent racism of the time to become a dancer and singer. A move to Paris preceded her rise to international superstar. She worked as a spy for the French resistance and was decorated for bravery by President De Gaulle. She stood side by side with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the March on Washington and became the only woman on that historic day to address the crowd. This is one of the most amazing life stories you will ever encounter. And you can live it now at The Black Ensemble Theater.
And if you ever find yourself sipping red wine in a town like La Roque-Gageac, you’re just down the road from Josephine’s beloved Chateau Les Milandes. They even have an outdoor raptor show.