Josephine Baker: The Black Pearl - Michigan Opera Theatre

Josephine Baker: The Black Pearl

Born June 3, 1906 in St. Louis, Missouri, Josephine Baker grew up in a low-income neighborhood. A street dancer with no formal training, she would become the highest paid female entertainer in the world; reaching audiences throughout the United States, Europe and South America. She was controversial in that she was very outspoken in terms of her feelings around race and equality - especially in America - as well as for her openness regarding women and sexuality.

 

She is probably best known for both her interpretation of the popular dance, the Charleston, representing the Roaring 20s which ushered in the Jazz Age.  Baker was also known for her scandalous “banana dance” (actually titled Danse Sauvage) with its scant, provocative costume consisting of a skirt of artificial bananas, combined with her suggestive gyrations and expression of her sexuality in a completely free way.

At a young age, Baker was recruited for the St. Louis Chorus vaudeville show. At the age of 15, she left for New York where she would go on to perform at The Plantation Club, as well as in the chorus lines of several Broadway revues, including 1921’s groundbreaking Shuffle Along. A major attraction in New York, Baker exported the Harlem Renaissance to Europe.  She would later become a major star at the famous Folies Bergère in Paris. She was a sensation, known for both her erotic dancing and for her near-nudity on stage.  One of her most famous quotes states “I wasn’t really naked. I simply didn’t have any clothes on.”

 

In addition to her singing and dancing, Baker was catapulted into fame by the company she kept – the likes of Ernest Hemingway who called her “the most sensational woman I ever saw”; Picasso, who painted her; and Jean Cocteau who befriended her and helped launch her into international celebrity.

Baker was also known for her exotic idiosyncrasies, such as her pet cheetah who wore a diamond collar, which was a part of her show (and sometimes wandered into the orchestra pit, much to the horror of the musicians).  She also kept a pet goat that lived in her dressing room, as well as a pet pig.

 

After ten years of adulation in Europe and South America, Baker returned to America to star in a 1936 revival of Ziegfeld Follies on Broadway, which was not enthusiastically received. She felt the racism she encountered in America was far worse than it had been when she left ten years earlier. A year later, she returned to France, renounced her American citizenship and became a French citizen.

 

Josephine Baker stood up for equality, often risking her own career. She did not respond to hatred with hatred, but rather with love and empathy.  She told the story of walking out of a New York hotel at the same time a white woman was walking in, who spat on her as she passed. While the incident brought tears to her eyes, she did not blame the woman for her action, but rather, blamed the incident on what the woman had been taught. Baker changed the world by giving great visibility to people of color, and fought for what she believed in: “Surely the day will come when color means nothing more than skin tone, when religion is seen uniquely as a way to speak one’s soul, when birth places have the weight of a throw of the dice and all men are free, when understanding breeds love and brotherhood.”

In addition to her career as a world-renowned entertainer, Baker worked with the French military intelligence agency during WWII. She was a civil rights activist, refusing to perform for non-integrated audiences; and a humanitarian, donating much of her earnings to people living in poverty. To prove her belief that “children of different ethnicities and religions could still be brothers,” Baker adopted a dozen children from all corners of the world, which she referred to as “The Rainbow Tribe.”

 

Baker performed until the end of her life. In 1975 she starred in a retrospective revue in Paris that celebrated her 50-year career. Four days after the opening, she suffered a cerebral hemorrhage which left her in a coma, from which she ultimately died. According to Baker’s own words: “The things we truly love stay with us always, locked in our hearts as long as life remains.”

 

A national treasure in her adopted country, Baker received France’s prestigious Legion of Honor, and is the only American-born woman to receive full French military honors at her funeral.

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