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Black Ensemble stages a stellar evocation of life of Josephine Baker

Aeriel Williams plays the young Josephine Baker in the Black Ensemble Theatre production of "Black Pearl: A Tribute to Josephine Baker." | Michael Courier

It is only in the very final moments of “Black Pearl: A Tribute to Josephine Baker” — the Black Ensemble Theater’s sensational new show — that archival photographs of the groundbreaking performer who became the toast of Paris in the 1920s are projected above the stage. And that is as it should be, for up until then, two remarkable actresses with their own formidable star power — Aeriel Williams (as the irrepressible young Josephine) and Joan Ruffin (as her more mature incarnation) — turn in such vivid portrayals of the fabled dancer-singer that you fully believe you are in the presence of Baker herself.

Together, in a wholly engrossing, fast-moving show — written and directed by Daryl D. Brooks, shot through with classic songs associated with Baker and her era, and with snap, crackle and pop choreography by Rueben Echoles —  these two similarly strikingly talented, charismatic, long-limbed women with formidable voices spin this musical biography with perfect synchrony. And they suggest the scars left by the poverty and racism of Baker’s earliest years in St. Louis, the teenage triumphs when her natural talent as a performer is spotted, the worldwide fame and fortune she finds after becoming a superstar in France, and the sense of freedom she feels when living far from this country’s Jim Crow laws. Here is a woman who knew great pain and great celebrity, and was determined to shape her own destiny, whatever the consequences.

Highly recommended
When: Through June 18
Where: Black Ensemble Theatre, 4450 N. Clark
Tickets: $55 – $65
Info: www.blackensemble.org
Run time: 2 hours and 15 minutes,with one intermission

Joan Ruffin portrays the mature Josephine Baker in “Black Pearl: A Tribute to Josephine Baker.” | Michael Courier

Born in 1906, Freda Josephine McDonald was the daughter of black vaudeville performers Carrie McDonald (Kylah Frye) and (though paternity is in question) Eddie Carson (Lemond A. Hayes). Eddie soon fled the scene, and Carrie remarried and had more children than she could support as a laundress. So at the age of eight, Josephine (she hated the name Freda) was sent to work as a domestic with a white family, and for the next five years — until she ran away — was subjected to mental, physical and sexual abuse.

A natural, high-spirited dancer, Baker worked as a waitress at a jazz club where Jelly Roll Morton (the always engaging Kyle Smith) and Bessie Smith (the ever-dazzling Rhonda Preston) performed, and at age 15 worked her way into a popular touring vaudeville act (with a wonderful dance sequence here set to Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag”). Later, through fierce determination, she gets the attention of Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake (zesty turns by Dennis Dent and  and Vincent Jordan), whose landmark 1921 Broadway musical, “Shuffle Along,” would make her a star, even as the theater where it was performed remained strictly segregated. (“Shuffle Along” was recently reinvented on Broadway, and watching “Black Pearl” you can only dream that the Black Ensemble will nab the rights to it for a Chicago production.)

Baker’s success on Broadway brought her an invitation from a French diplomat’s wife to star in “La Revue Negre” in Paris. She was just 19, and hesitant at first, but the promise of no American-style racism, as well as a big salary sealed the deal. She quickly became the toast of Jazz Age Paris, and while she initially balked at having to wear a skimpy outfit, her act became a sensation. (The question of whether this was its own form of racism is never raised in the show, although the infamous “Banana Dance” routine reinvented here more or less speaks for itself, as a white colonial type is the stunned target of Baker’s pelvic gyrations and her accompanying African “savages.”)

A return to New York to perform in the Follies is met with devastating, racist reviews, and Baker returns to France, which will become her home until her death in 1975. During World War II she helped the Resistance movement. Later she adopted 11 orphans from a wide variety of nationalities, housing them in her elaborate chateau in the south of France. Eventually, with extravagant expenses and a career in decline she found herself penniless. And who came to the rescue? None other than Grace Kelly, the American actress who had become the Princess of Monaco.

All along the way there were good men and bad men who Baker married and/or dispensed with, depended on or blamed. There was the ever envious mother (played in later life by Preston), who she nevertheless supported generously. There were race-fueled flareups (notably one with Walter Winchell, the powerful New York gossip columnist). And there was the birth of hope with the Civil Rights Movement.

Throughout, the ensemble (which includes Phillip Christian, Kelly Maryanski, Linnea Norwood, William Rowland, Gregory “Henri” Slater, and Jake Stempel), moves fleetly, with spectacular costumes by Alexia Rutherford capturing each time period. And as always, the onstage orchestra under music director/drummer Robert Reddrick (featuring Dudley Owens, Bill McFarland, Paul Howard, Gary Baker, Roger Weaver and Mark Miller) does a knockout job with everything from “I’m Just Wild About Harry” and “Charleston,” to “La Vie en Rose,” “Please Don’t Touch Me Tomatoes” and “Quando, Quando, Quando.”

The “Banana Dance” number as performed by Lemond A. Hayes (from left), Dennis Dent, Aeriel Williams, Gregory “Henri” Slater, Kyle Smith and (in pith helmet) Jake Stempel in the Black Ensemble Theater production of “Black Pearl: A Tribute to Josephine Baker.” | Michael Courier