The unique career of Josephine Baker (1906-1975) is as ripe for dramatization as the bananas adorning her skirt in her famous Folies Bergere dance specialties. Actress-scribe Sloan Robinson takes a well-meant stab at it in “Bananas! A Day in the Life of Josephine Baker,” but her writing isn’t yet bold enough to peel back the skin and reveal the woman beneath.
From the moment Robinson’s Baker sweeps into her Paris hotel suite between shows circa 1961, she possesses the breathless joie de vivre one associates with the “Bronze Venus,” never taking herself or her performing skills, honed on East St. Louis street corners for pennies, quite as seriously as critics and fans did.
Glimpses of the fabled artistry – not just snatches of raucous dance, but the flair with which she changes into and out of a score of distinctive outfits – readily convey the dazzle Baker was said to possess in person. (Naila Aladdin Sanders’ striking re-creation of the gowns, and Aeros Pierce’s understated musical accompaniment, are the evening’s unqualified successes.)
Beyond her historical importance as an integration pioneer, French Resistance fighter and groundbreaking entertainment icon, Baker embodies Americans’ complex relationship with Europe as a place where yearnings for home may be sublimated if never completely stifled. All of the above is touched upon, but none explored, as she natters away her life story to a photograph of her dear departed “Maman.”
Wisely, Robinson forgoes a strictly chronological approach, keeping things light in act one and reserving the tougher stuff (encounters with violent racism; the Stork Club feud with Walter Winchell) for post-intermission. Unwisely, she provides no reason why Baker should be telling the story at this particular moment, to Maman or anyone else, or why she keeps talking in the face of what she says is bone-weariness. Even the intermission comes because Robinson, not Baker, seems to need a break.
“Why” is a question Robinson’s text almost never poses. Baker’s maternal instinct, for instance: We get the bare facts of her having adopted 12 kids of various races (take that, Madonna and Angelina). But why so many? What kind of mother was she? Which kids disappointed her, which ones fulfilled? What was life like in that Dordogne chateau, and why’d she feel a need to return to the stage periodically?
Helmer Joyce Maddox has done Robinson no favors by encouraging or permitting her to skate past what’s really important in each aspect of Baker’s life. Since this actress can clearly play any version of Baker that’s desired, she should opt for one that probes into the psychology underlying the facts.