The Lustre of "Black Pearl" @ Black Ensemble Theater

Theatre Review by Angela Allyn

3 Stars out of 4

Daryl D Brooks new show Black Pearl: A Tribute to Josephine Baker is a sparkling new work of Music Theatre that will have should have a lengthy life as the go to bioplay on this seminal figure in world entertainment.  It’s a long overdue marvelous tribute to one of the most vibrant “mothers” of American theatre, even though most of her career was spent as an expat in France.

The script is standard biographical fare, beginning with Baker’s death of cerebral hemorrhage at 68 and looking back at her difficult beginnings with parents on the vaudeville circuit and an alleged father that abandoned the family forcing her mother to trade her into servitude at the ripe age of 9.  The young Freda, renaming herself for her middle name Josephine, muscles her way into performing and from there, this show would have you believe her trajectory to stardom was inevitable.  The storyline in the show glosses over most of her troubled marriages, and avoids the delving into her politically incorrect Rainbow Tribe adoptions.  Most disturbingly the plot only deals with her relationships with women in two tiny moments: Baker was famously promiscuous with men AND women, and while that material would have branded the show too hot to handle in a previous time, it’s a conversation well worth having in our own era.  The lobby display on Legacy alludes to this, but its not on the stage.

Aeriel Williams, Joan Ruffin. Photo by Michael Courier.

Aeriel Williams, Joan Ruffin. Photo by Michael Courier.

This complex woman, as portrayed by Brooks’ script,  is overly simplified and avoids most of the controversial aspects of her life, save for her commitment to civil rights, most famously insisting to play integrated audiences in America or not play at all.  But his direction of the show is luminous. This larger than life real person is played by two women: the Elder Josephine looking back is the statuesque and glamorous Joan Ruffin, and the younger Josephine is the wide eyed dynamo Aeriel Mon’Aerie Williams. Both women have the pipes to belt out a score of period covers, ably backed up by the onstage band led by Robert Reddrick.  The production has the feel of a period nightclub complete with brass.  I had a slight quibble with the overuse of echo in the sound design, but even that can’t get in the way of this blockbuster musical.  Costume designer Alexia Rutherford has outdone herself with gorgeous gowns and period wear, but the dressing staff needs to get more comfortable with the quick changes so that Josephine does not appear onstage misbuttoned and wires hanging. This rendition of Baker has her wearing much more than she actually wore in her French shows, but that makes this a suitable for all ages show.  

This is a grand night of entertainment and a worthy tribute to an amazing woman that we need to know more about. Champagne to Black Ensemble Theatre for mining this gem!

Black Pearl: A Tribute to Josephine Baker runs Thursdays through Sundays through June 18th, 2017 at the Black Ensemble Theater, 4450 North Clark Street on Chicago’s North Side.  For tickets and information go to call 773-769-4451 or go to www.blackensebletheater.org  and http://www.theatreinchicago.com/black-pearl-a-tribute-to-josephine-baker/9190/