When Halle Berry became the first African American to win a Best Actress Academy Award in 2002, she dedicated her golden statuette to a trio of pioneering black performers—Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, and Diahann Carroll—for opening the door to Berry’s Oscar win. In retrospect, Berry could just have easily added a fourth name to the list, that of Josephine Baker, the first African-American female to star in a major motion picture, the first to perform before an integrated audience in an American concert hall, and the first to see her fame spread throughout the world.

Los Angeles audiences who may or may not be familiar with the ground-breaking “Duchess Of Europe” now have the chance to spend an hour and a half with the one-and-only Josephine in Sloan Robinson’s NAACP Award-nominated Bananas! A Day In The Life Of Josephine Baker, starring actress/playwright Robinson in the title role.

A fifty-five-year-old Baker recounts her tale from a Parisian hotel suite in 1961, three and a half decades after a nineteen-year-old Josephine became the “Toast Of Paree” at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. Financial woes have prompted the middle-aged star to sell many of her prized possessions and to fear that it may be a bill collector at the end of the line when the phone rings in her hotel suite. Fortunately, the call turns out to be from Baker’s manager Stephen Papich, urging her to open the letter she has just received from would-be biographer (and legendary New York Times film critic) Bosley Crowther. Crother’s missive, filled with the admiration of a longtime fan, sends Josephine back in time as she recounts her event-studded life to a photo of her recently deceased “Maman” (and to us by extension).

As memories so often tend to do, Baker’s pay not all that much attention to chronological order, leaving her traumatic childhood for the evening’s second act. Act One gives us the glamorous expatriate diva who recalls “my wild days, banana dancing days, … prancing around Europe half-naked.” There are remembrances of Josephine’s cheetah Mildred, who “went everywhere with me, even the movies,” of the short hairdo which became her signature cut entirely by accident, and of the fabulous Dior, Worth, and Chanel gowns that Baker never had to pay a dime for.

“I did things that women just did not do in those days,” Josephine recalls. “I learned to drive a car. I got a pilot’s license. I have performed all over the world and it started with a few bananas.” Baker also spied on behalf of her adoptive country when it was invaded by the Nazis, and later became an American Civil Rights advocate. (Two years after Bananas!’s “Day In The Life,” Josephine went on to speak side-by-side with Martin Luther King, Jr. at the March On Washington.) She also adopted a “rainbow tribe” of orphans from throughout the world, twelve in all, though still “only” eleven when Bananas! takes place.

It is not merely Josephine’s memories that we are privileged to hear over the course of Bananas!’s ninety minutes. A vocally strong Robinson performs four classic Josephine Baker numbers, including a jazzy “Hello Young Lovers” and the diva’s greatest hit, “J’ai Deux Amours,” accompanied on keyboard by tiptop music director Aeros Pierce, who underscores the entire production with a medley of songs from the ‘20s, ‘30s, and ‘40s.

In the tradition of those who have preceded her in one-actor-shows about Mark Twain, Emily Dickinson, Golda Meir, George Burns, and Katharine Hepburn, Robinson soon makes us forget that it is she up onstage and not the real Josephine. Throughout most of her performance, Robinson speaks in the French-influenced tones Baker likely affected (whether deliberately or through osmosis) once Paris became her home, making it all the more powerful when we hear Josephine’s “real” voice in Bananas!’s most dramatic sequence, a journey back to an impoverished, violence-scarred childhood spent in the slums of St. Louis.

Robinson’s performance is made all the more authentic by the gorgeous gowns she changes in and out of throughout the evening (sumptuously designed by Naila Aladdin Sanders), including that infamous banana belt, which Robinson dons for a demonstration of the sexy-comedic dance that made Josephine a star.

In only one aspect does Robinson falter, and that is in her use of the French language. Though her pronunciation of brief phrases is respectable enough to fool non-French speakers, the real Josephine spoke la langue française quite fluently and would never have made grammatical mistakes like “C’est elle l’homme?” for “C’est un homme?”,Mon chéries très merci” for “Merci beaucoup mes chéris,” “un peu bananes” for “quelques bananes,” to cite just three fautes de français. Robinson might consider hiring a native-speaking coach to polish Josephine’s French, both grammatically and in her performance of “J’ai Deux Amours,” a song quite easy understood in Miss Baker’s original recording and considerably less so in Robinson’s otherwise well-sung rendition.

Still this is a minor quibble in what is an otherwise all-around terrific performance, aided and abetted by director Joyce Maddox’s imaginative staging.

Bananas!’s uncredited set design is relatively bare-bones (furniture suggesting Josephine’s Paris suite, costume racks, family photos on a stand), and made even more so by the concrete floor of the rather industrial-looking J.E.T. Studios stage. Bobby Ellerbee’s effective original lighting design has been redesigned by Matthew Schroeder for the current engagement.

Judith E. Taranto is executive producer and Judith E./Do-It-Yourselves Productions are producers. John Freeland Jr. is production stage manager and light operator. Bananas! A Day In The Life Of Josephine Baker is a presented by J.E.T. Productions-West in association with Do-It-Yourself productions.

Even for those already familiar with the timeline of Josephine Baker’s life, Bananas! A Day In The Life Of Josephine Baker is likely to prove an eye-opener. Sloan Robinson recreates la vie de Joséphine with affection, historical accuracy, and grace, making Bananas! an entertaining—and educational—tour down memory lane, and one well worth the attention of audiences of any age or color.

J.E.T. Studios 5126 Lankershim Boulevard, North Hollywood. Through February 29. Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8:00. Sundays at 3:00. Dark through January 6, when performances resume. Reservations: 818 358-3453

–Steven Stanley
December 21, 2011
Photos: Judith E.

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