Q&A: Tymisha Harris on becoming Josephine Baker

Performer Tymisha Harris brings her acclaimed one-woman show Josephine to Atlanta

by Andrew Alexander

Featured image: Tymisha Harris as Josephine Baker.

Before Ella Fitzgerald, before Tina Turner, before Billie Holiday or Beyoncé, there was Josephine Baker. Baker was the first African-American international superstar, one of the most iconic performers of the 20th century. But opportunities to learn about her act or to see firsthand what she was all about are obviously pretty rare.

Acclaimed singer, dancer, and actor Tymisha Harris recreates the persona of Josephine Baker in her one-woman show, Josephine: a burlesque cabaret dream play. The show brings the iconic performer to life and tells her story from her beginnings growing up in St. Louis to her decision to leave the US and find international stardom on the stages of Paris, eventually becoming a spy for the French Resistance and an outspoken activist during the Civil Rights Movement. 

The Alexander Report caught up with Harris to discuss the show in advance of its Atlanta stop, courtesy of the Atlanta Fringe Festival, from November 7-10 at the Southwest Performing Arts Center.

How did you originally come to start performing as Josephine Baker?

Tymisha Harris: Originally, it started out as a place to see what I had, to showcase my talents. We talked about doing a Tina Turner show, but that didn’t work out, and someone suggested looking into Josephine Baker. She turned out to be perfect. Her story has been told before, but somehow in this era, she’s just kind of been swept under the rug. In 2015-2016 when Michael Marinaccio, Tod Kimbro, and I were creating the show, it seemed like hers was a voice that needed to be heard.

Tymisha Harris as Josephine Baker (Photo by Lindsay Taylor)

Had Jospehine Baker been a source of influence for you throughout your own career, or was it more a process of getting to know her through the creation of the show?

Harris: I first learned about her when I was 17 years old through the HBO special The Josephine Baker Story starring Lynn Whitfield. I couldn’t believe there was a woman that looked like me who had conquered the other side of the world. She was put in my subconscious when I was 17, and that did help me very much and influenced my career. She just kept floating around with me, like my little angel saying, “Yes. Try that. Maybe you have to be the first one. Go ahead and embrace that.” I just let it happen. When she got reintroduced to us, it was like a whirlwind. Somebody suggested “Josephine Baker,” and it was like a spark. We fell in love again … If it wasn’t for Josephine, I don’t know if we’d be able to be in this position at all. She broke down a lot of barriers. She was way ahead of her time. 

Most people know that Josephine Baker was a famous performer, but fewer of us really know what exactly was in her act. How did you set about trying to recreate her performances, her voice, and her dancing style?  Did you try to imitate old films and recordings?

Harris: I don’t think we tried to create an imitation. Her singing voice, especially in her early years, was very much a high soprano. In the 1920s, music had a sweet, almost nursery rhyme sort of sound. I knew I was not a soprano, I’ve never been a soprano. My music director Tod Kimbro and I had worked together before so we knew what my voice did. My voice is a lot more contemporary, so it makes sense for audiences to hear it in this way. As far as the dancing goes, I watched and studied a lot of Josephine Baker, and I bring a lot of her essence in there. But I’m not trying to imitate her. I’m going for the essence. I’m going for that thing that captivated audiences: her ferocity. Her improvisational skills. Her humor. It’s her essence without being an imitation.

Josephine Baker was also famous for her style, so I was interested to read you created the costumes. 

Harris: I did do the costumes. Some of them I created, some of them were my mother’s and my grandmother’s clothes, jewelry and other things. I’m always on the lookout for a new dress. Her style was exquisite. I’ve been collecting things for years. 

Tymisha Harris as Josephine Baker (Von Hoffman)

Baker is strongly associated with Paris and the roaring 20s, but she was fortunate to live to a ripe old age. She covered Bob Dylan towards the end of her career, and I was interested to learn that that song is included in your show. Can you tell me about that?

Harris: During our research, we found that she covered Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A Changin’ during a late comeback tour in the early 1970s. She always did her own thing. We knew the song would come at a powerful moment in the show, after her speech at the March on Washington. We tried to honor what Josephine did, but also brought it to a contemporary audience. It’s almost a meeting halfway between Dylan’s and Josephine Baker’s versions. It’s one of the things we’re most proud of in the show.

You’ve performed the show all over the USA, Canada, and the UK. Has anyone who knew Josephine Baker or been to see her show come to see your performance as her?

Harris: We’ve had a few audience members who had seen Josephine Baker when they were younger, especially when we were in New York. We had a few folks who came up in tears. It’s really fulfilling when they come up and their eyes are full of tears and they just want to tell me their story. One man was in his 90s. He had a collection of Josephine memorabilia in his apartment–he showed us pictures–it was like a shrine to her. It meant the world to him to see the show.

Josephine Baker in 1927. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

What do you imagine Josephine Baker would make of this current political moment we’re going through?

Harris: Josephine Baker once said, “When Josephine gets mad, the whole world hears it.” She was extremely outspoken. She was a strong, boisterous woman way ahead of her times. I think she would be very much in the center. resisting the divisiveness and tribalism and nationalism that are happening worldwide. It was really her dream to end racism, to make the world one world united. I think she’d be devastated to see what’s happening now.

Tymisha Harris performs in Josephine: a cabaret dream play at the Southwest Performing Arts Center from November 7-10.

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