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Blackbird: The Story of Josephine Baker
Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe

Blackbird
Dhakeria Cunningham
Currently being offered by Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe is the world premiere of Blackbird: The Story of Josephine Baker by Sherman Yellen and Wally Harper. The piece has been in development for many years. Wally Harper died in 2004, and now it seems to be ready for regional productions.

The authors spend the first act on the early years of "Josie" McDonald, a gawky early teen, and follow her through early engagements on street corners, then black vaudeville and in Harlem, including a featured spot at The Cotton Club. The second act takes her to Paris as Josephine Baker (the Baker comes from a short lived marriage to dancer Eddie Baker during the New York days) and hints at the super stardom that would became hers. The story line is carried principally by the songs. Wally Harper's tunes are catchy and help establish the period and place. There is a gospel inflected number "Bad Girl Rag" when the Minister and his wife tell Josie's Mama whats she's up to as well as several vaudeville numbers including "Chicken Strut" and "Get on With It." Josephine gets a solid 11 o'clock number, "Don't Bring Josie to the Party." The tunes are catchy, the lyrics well crafted, but they are more serviceable then memorable.

In this production, Dhakeria Cunningham plays Josie, and is surrounded by four energetic performers who assume the roles of all the other important people in the performer's life. In truth, it would be better to have more supporting performers, as some key roles have to be duplicated. One role, Caroline Dudley, the white producer who brings Josie/Josephine to the Folies Bergeres, is played by a black performer and many in the audiences did not figure out that she was white, which becomes a plot point.

The supporting roles are all well taken. Ariel Blue as Josie's mother and blues singer Big Bertha Smith, is excellent in both roles, but is unable to differentiate them as well as two actresses might have. Both are earth mother types, but they are very different people in relationship to Josie. WBTT founder Nate Jacobs and Tsadok Porter are energetic and definite pluses in multiple roles, several of them as husband and wife. The only thing Nate Jacobs does better than get the shows on in various capacities is perform in them, and Ms. Porter has been outstanding in several earlier productions this season. Michael Mendez is excellent as Eddie Baker, Josie's first husband, and Frenchman Paul Colin, Josephine's mentor and French instructor.

The centerpiece of the production, as she needs to be, is Dhakeria Cunningham as Josie/Josephine. Ms. Cunningham was featured in an important role in the earlier production of A Raisin in the Sun where she established her acting credentials. Here those acting abilities show to great effect, as she shows us the awkward adolescent, the blossoming young woman, and the beautiful young woman Josephine becomes. She sings well, but not with the star quality her acting shows, which is appropriate because Josephine Baker never became a star as a singer but as a dancer and a personality. Ms. Cunningham performance is an outstanding one, giving the audience the idea of who Josephine Baker was and what her abilities as a performer were.

The direction by Harry Bryce keeps the first act flowing and clear as the story moves through several levels of show business, and back and forth to Josie's childhood home. The costumes are uncredited, but excellent, even within a limited budget. Mr. Jacobs looks particularly snazzy in a tux with red bow tie and cummerbund, and in a later scene in a zoot-suit. Ms. Cunningham's costumes, including costume changes made on stage, are all in service of defining the character. Michael Newton-Brown's set designs work excellently, including a wicker-basket which is a major plot point. Musical director Terrance L. Lane leads a three-piece ensemble from the keyboard and keeps the musical side of things lively and focused.

Blackbird is a major undertaking for Westcoast Black Theater Troupe, and they acquit themselves beautifully. I think the musical might prove to have a life in medium and small regional theaters as well as ambitious community theaters.

Blackbird, presented by WBTT Theater, 1646 10th Way, Sarasota, Florida, 366-1505. Through May 20, 2012. For more information, visit www.wbttsrq.org.

Blackbird, Libretto and Lyrics by Sherman Yellen, Music by Wally Harper

Director, Choreographer: Harry Bryce
Music Director: Terrance L. Lane
Lighting Designer: Michael Pasquini
Set Designer: Michael Newton-Brown
House Manager: Myllanna McKinnon
Production Manager: James Dodge II

Scott Blum: Drums/Percussion
Jeffrey Williams: Bass
Terrance L. Lane: Key boards

Cast
Dhakeria Cunningham as Josie/Josephine Baker
Ariel Blue as Carrie McDonald and Big Bertha Smith
Nate Jacobs as Reverend Loomis, Father Jones, and others
Tsadok Porter as Miss Cora, Mother Jones and Caroline Dudley
Michael Mendez as Eddie Baker, Paul Colin and others.


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--William S. Oser



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