Review by Daniel Dunlow
12 March 2015
The Public has done it again.
And by “it,” I mean redefined how to approach theatre.
Josephine and I, a play written an performed by British actress Cush Jumbo (recently seen in Broadway’s The River) just opened in The Public Theatre’s Joe’s Pub. This one-woman biographical/autobiographical play focuses on the life of 20’s and 30’s dance star Josephine Baker and the life of the actress performing her, Jumbo. Hence, Josephine and I.
Firstly, the name Cush Jumbo is brilliant. With a name like that, how can you not be famous? But let me tell you, this girl has the chops to back up her fierce name. She navigates her work as an actress with maximum skill and the grace to suck you into these stories without ever wonder “when will this end?” (the dreaded question for most one-person shows.)
This was without a doubt the finest one-person play I had ever had the chance to watch. Here’s why…
Writing - It was potent, powerful and told these stories in a way that consumed every mind in the theatre. There was no space for wondering thoughts when Jumbo’s words are invading the room. Not to mention it’s written by and about the same lady who performs it. This is dangerous when a writer writes something they perform (we’ve seen this go wrong with Sting’s The Last Ship) and also when a writer writes about their self (which we’ve seen go wrong with Motown the Musical by Berry Gordy). These seem to go toward one-sided, flat portrayals, exalting the characters as demigods. But Jumbo shares the good, the bad, and the ugly of the two-women at the center of her piece, and it’s so beautiful.
Acting - As I said, she’s brilliant. Watch out New York, London, Los Angeles, and any other city Cush Jumbo wants to act in.
Direction - Superb. It was simple, and beautiful. Congrats Phyllida Lloyd.
Scenic and Costumes - Not a complaint to be had. Not distracting (until it needed to be.) God, I love feathers.
Lighting Design - Skillful and with great timing. It played very well with the “and” in between “Josephine” and “I.”
Music - Delightful. Bravo to the man behind the music and the piano, Joseph Atkins (who acts a bit in the show, too.)
The Public has had a long history of performing potent and needed works that speak louder than the room they are performed in. This time, they give us a play with the life of the Black female performer laid out raw in front of us, for us to synthesize and take back into our day-to-day perspectives. If you leave the play seeing these actresses in the same light, you are missing many sensory systems.
This is a don’t miss show. Run to Joe’s Pub, order a drink (I recommend their Rosé Prosecco,) order an appetizer (I recommend the french fries,) and order a theatrical experience to be reckoned with (I recommend Josephine and I.)
"When Cush Jumbo says she has fire inside her, you have no reason to doubt it. Portraying both title characters in 'Josephine and I,'... Ms. Jumbo projects the kind of five-alarm charm that threatens to set rooms ablaze."
Ben Brantley for New York Times
"'Josephine and I' could benefit from alterations of its own — more 'Josephine' and less 'I.'"
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News
"By the end, it’s easy to overlook the occasional lapses in perspective because Jumbo’s tribute is clearly rooted in genuine admiration and affection. There’s no better way to keep Baker alive."
Elisabeth Vincentelli for New York Post
"Though her singing voice isn’t much like Baker’s, and her historical exposition can be clunky, Jumbo is a talented performer whose admiration for her fascinating subject is infectious."
Adam Feldman for Time Out New York
External links to full reviews from popular press...