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New play explores Josephine Baker’s complex life

“Once Upon a Time…Josephine Baker!” at Yellow Tree Theatre paints a powerful portrait of the trailblazing 20th-century superstar. 


A Black woman wears an extravagant white outfit featuring lots of feathers and rhinestones. She poses with her arms outstretched in the air, lit by stage lights.
Austene Van portrays Josephine Baker in Yellow Tree Theatre's latest production. (Photo credit: Alex Clark)

African American artists flocked to Paris in the early 20th century, drawn by the promise of creative freedom unavailable to them in the United States.  Their presence transformed the city into a vibrant artistic mecca. Among them was Josephine Baker, who arrived in 1925 seeking refuge from a country unwilling to accept her bold defiance of racial and gender norms. She quickly  rose to international fame in the Parisian cabaret scene.  


The new play “Once Upon a Time…Josephine Baker!” currently on stage at Yellow Tree Theatre in Osseo, Minnesota, explores the duality of Baker’s life. Written by and starring Austene Van, the theater’s artistic director, the production blurs the lines between reality and the fantastical persona Baker cultivated. 


“She was just different, and she had to sort of embrace that, even though she was teased by everyone on the planet,” Van said. “Black people, white people, all people, didn’t know what to do with this person, and she seemed to be creative about her life events. That’s why it's called ‘Once Upon a Time.’”


Baker defied many expectations throughout her life. From her beginnings in dance and music to her role as a spy for the French Resistance during World War II, to adopting 12 children of different races, whom she referred to as “the rainbow tribe.”


“It’s important for everyone, especially people of color to see that she was a whole person” and not just the culmination of the “crushing, critical events that happened in her life,” Van said. 


A stage set decorated in images and memorabilia from the 1920s. One Black woman sits at a small white desk, while another stands facing the audience, wearing an elegant silky white gown with what appears to be fur trim.
Mac and Josephine, played by Tolu Ekisola and Austene Van, in "Once Upon a Time... Josephine Baker!" (Photo credit: Alex Clark)

The play finds Josephine (Van) in 1975 in a Parisian hotel room where she just had a triumphant comeback performance the night before. Now, at almost seventy, she wants to write her life story – a chronicle of memories marred by an abusive childhood, the sting of American prejudice, a trail of four husbands, and the belief that she had been chosen to be the one to dismantle racism. 


Mac, a skeptical journalist (played by Tolu Ekisola), helps Josephine piece together her autobiography while uncovering the inconsistencies and deeper truths that make up her legacy. 


Throughout the play, Mac embraces her Blackness, pushing Josephine to confront and acknowledge the racial struggles that defined much of her life. Van’s portrayal of Baker often reveals a character who is inclined to reject that part of herself, preferring the adoration and escapism found in her Parisian life. 


“What I am writing will be my definitive autobiography. A pop-up book. So the young girls of today will learn from the fairytale that is my life,” Josephine declares. “Nothing in this world is impossible. Regardless of the skin you decide to walk in: Black, white, male, female. Everything in this world is at your fingertips, all you have to do is grab it.”


Van’s fascination with Baker began in 2009, fueled by a deep dive into her many biographies, autobiographies, articles, interviews, and reviews by American and French critics. 


“She was complex. Her biographies were different. They contradicted each other and then her autobiographies contradicted each other. I’m like, ‘hold on. Wait a minute,’” Van said. “I started reading and was kind of putting all the pieces together.” 


By 2014, Van had committed to writing five pages a day, eventually producing a 69-page draft that stands in contrast with conventional biographies. This work brings Baker’s life to the stage in a non-linear fashion, blurring the lines between reality and fantasy. 


Set designer Sarah Braundner skillfully created a space that reflects the fragmented nature of Baker’s story. The set features a hotel room atop a fictional restaurant called “Freda’s Hot House,” a nod to Baker’s birth name Freda Josephine McDonald. Baker’s hotel room is dotted with historical artifacts like a victrola, a rotary phone, and a 1975 electric guitar, blending eras to evoke a sense of timelessness as Van recounts Baker’s life on stage. 


A woman in a gold lamé bikini with gold bananas encircling her waist and rhinestone bracelets performs a dance, while another woman looks on from afar.
Josephine Baker (Austene Van) rehearses the iconic "banana dance" in "Once Upon a Time... Josephine Baker!" (Photo credit: Alex Clark)

The production captures Baker’s stardom in Paris, beginning with her performance in the musical show La Revue Négre in 1926. 


“People thought it was an African dance, so she’s most known for the banana dance,” in which she wore a string of pearls, wrist cuffs, and a skirt made of rubber bananas, Van said. “The audience loved her so much. They were like ‘what is this?’ I don’t know what she is. Is she Black? Is she white? Is she male?” 


“She tried to bring her nanas back to America and they were like ‘Girl, if you don’t get out of here with that. There’s like a thousand of you at the Cotton Club right now.’ But I’m Josephine!’” Van said with the grandiose flair she brings to her portrayal on stage. 


The play vividly contrasts this adoration in France with her reception in America. In a striking scene, Josephine performs in New York for the Ziegfeld Follies in 1935, which was met with hostility and racism from critics. As Josephine sings “Don’t Touch Me Tomato,” American reviews are played through the speakers, making her stumble during the performance. 


“These pages are wrong. I do not want to do the ‘1935 return to America scene’, I want to do the ‘1951 return to America scene,’” Josephine demands. “1935 turned me away from 36 hotels, made me enter through servants' entrances. 1935 treated me like a dog.”


Parallel lives of passion and pain


Van delivers a stellar performance, capturing Baker’s unwavering confidence that borders on arrogance, a steely resolve met with flashes of insecurity, and a yearning for love that stretches back to childhood. Van’s interactions with the audience becomes a calculated performance in itself, creating a distance and refusal to truly connect that compels us to wonder – who is the real Josephine Baker beneath all that glitz? 


“You see this image of this woman that seems like she’s this goddess, but all of this real stuff was happening inside her, you know? The insecurities, pain and wanting to accept herself but then pushing herself away,” Van said. “Don’t a lot of us go through some of those things? Especially with how the world tries to keep us in boxes and make sure that our images are distorted for financial gain.”


Van didn’t initially plan to step into the role of Baker but found herself resonating with Baker’s experiences and artistic passion, including experiencing a challenging childhood, identifying as bisexual, marrying a gay person, and at times, not feeling Black enough.


Two women face one another; the woman on the left has her hand on the other woman's cheek.
Josephine and Mac, portrayed by Austene Van and Tolu Ekisola. (Photo credit: Alex Clark)

Just as Baker carved a space for herself on Parisian stages, Van advocates for creating inclusive spaces and diverse narratives within the theater community. Her work with Penumbra Theatre and her founding of New Dawn Theatre, establishes a platform where Black, brown, and LGBTQ+ voices can be heard. Van encourages artists to “build their house,” not wait for opportunities to be handed to them. 


“I love working at the Guthrie. I love working at the Ordway. I love working at Aslo. I love working at IRT. But I love the idea that I don’t have to wait to make a role for my girlfriend, to lift up Jamecia [Bennett], Thomasina [Petrus], Regina [Marie Williams], and Tolu,” Van said. “Tolu’s a bad mama jama. She’s in the show but she also has another business. She’s not waiting around for someone to just give her something. You build.”


Similarly, Baker’s dazzling persona granted her access to the art world, but more importantly, it became a safe space she built for herself. 


“I don’t want to dishonor her memory at all, but I do know that part of her framework and part of the world that she created was to protect her,” Van said. “She needed protection and she needed to get away from some of the things that happened in her life. She needed a beautiful world, and [if] she could create it, why not? Why not do that?”


When: Through June 30

Where: Yellow Tree Theatre, 320 Fifth Ave. S.E., Osseo

Cost: $45 for general admission. $42 for seniors, students, and veterans. Buy tickets here

For more information: Visit yellowtreetheatre.com

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