If someone says the name Josephine Baker, what springs to mind? The famous singer of the jazz age? The spy in World War II, celebrated for her part in aiding the French Resistance?
Most people probably don’t know much more than that, artistic director Michael Marinaccio and actress Tymisha Harris agree. That’s a big part of the reason they created “Josie & Grace,” a production that explores the life of Josephine Baker and her friendship with Grace Kelly.
“It’s a musical, it’s history, and it’ll make you laugh and cry, these incredible performances by remarkable women,” Marinaccio says.
“Josie & Grace” was originally scheduled for Jan. 20 at the Faulkner Performing Arts Center on the University of Arkansas campus, but due to covid-19 surges is being rescheduled for a later date in March.
Marinaccio started directing and producing in 1997 as a way to create the roles he wanted to play himself. Once he started working with Harris in 2015, he says he wanted to give her a starring role, something that would highlight her talents.
Harris stars as Josephine in the musical. “Her life was so remarkable and extraordinary at the time that she became famous,” she says. “It’s a chunk of history that wasn’t talked about.”
Harris was a singer and dancer first. Acting on stage came later, after puppetry, circus performance and a couple of movie roles. Marinaccio’s first thought was to cast her as Tina Turner, until a friend mentioned Josephine Baker.
Marinaccio found Baker’s story compelling to craft for the stage because “she did so much throughout her life … it was groundbreaking in so many ways but wasn’t acknowledged, didn’t get the respect it deserved.”
Baker was born in St. Louis but rose to fame as an entertainer mostly in Europe. She married French industrialist Jean Lion and renounced her American citizenship in the mid-1930s.
Her status as a performer at nightclubs gave her an unassuming excuse to travel the country and be privy to crucial conversations among German soldiers. She collected information on airfields and troop concentrations for French military intelligence and housed people helping the Free French effort, according to “Jazz Age Cleopatra.”
“She was a huge star who (became) a World War II hero, the wealthiest Black woman in the world, and the most famous woman in France,” Marinaccio says. “It’s incredible that people haven’t heard all this.”
When Baker returned to the U.S. in 1951, she refused to perform at segregated venues and, though she wasn’t an official leader of the movement, she gave civil rights speeches.
That year, she was denied service at the Stork Club in New York City and once she spoke out against the New York elite, Marinaccio says, her visa was not reinstated for more than 10 years.
In November 2021, Baker became the first Black woman granted a tomb at the Pantheon, France’s monument to its heroes.
Marinaccio and Harris’ collaboration first started with the creation of the play “Josephine,” a one woman off-Broadway show, which was part cabaret and part dance to tell Baker’s story. For Harris, “Josephine” came along at just the right moment.
“I was finishing ‘Rock of Ages’ and other things were coming to a close, and I realized I needed to try something different,” she says. ‘Josephine’ created itself in our laps.”
Its first run was in 2016, and it has become what Harris calls her bread and butter. She finds a lot of parallels between her life and Josephine’s, as a Black woman in her own show who’s always trying something new and interacting with audiences all over the world. Now Harris is even the same age that Baker is in the play, which she believes gives her a unique perspective.
“Bringing awareness and reacquainting/reintroducing people with her is such a great moment for me,” Harris says. Some of the greatest moments of being Josephine are after the show, when she’s met audience members who saw Baker perform when they were children.
It’s wonderful “to know they felt like I brought her alive … or that I’m opening their eyes to an icon in a beautiful, lovely way that’s offering tribute to a story that was lost.”
Marinaccio and Harris wondered whether it would have legs for a wider audience, so they took it to the San Diego International Fringe Festival, which is full of independent producers floating their own work — a generally unjuried space that allows artists to create works entirely as they want. “Josephine” took home Best Show, and Harris was named Best performer.
It showed us that “we’re on to something special here. People responded to the story,” Marinaccio says. “It was a huge gift.”
Marinaccio, Harris and script writer Tod Kimbro were working to expand the story from “Josephine” into a new, separate production “Josie & Grace” by May 2018.
The story began to evolve into showcasing two icons because, Marinaccio says, there was plenty of evidence of Baker’s friendship with Grace Kelly, but “not a lot written about it or the depth of relationship known.”
Baker lost her chateau and went bankrupt in 1968, but Kelly invited her to headline the Red Cross Gala. Then she offered her an apartment near Monaco, where Baker could bring the rainbow tribe, the 12 children of differing nationalities she adopted and raised.
Kelly produced Baker’s shows and later paid for her funeral. They buried her remains at Monaco during a private ceremony with royalty and the rainbow tribe.
“So little is written about it,” Marinaccio says. “That’s what kept ringing for me.”
The connection to Grace Kelly also happens to be a great catalyst for American audiences to learn more about Josephine Baker, Marinaccio says, because Kelly was so much more famous here.
“So much of our audience is older and white. To see them learn more of her, a woman who had to fight for everything she got, is rewarding,” he says.
Ever since they brought “Josephine” back from the San Diego International Fringe Festival and revamped it, they’ve been ready for more people to see it. What makes it exciting, they both say, is that it’s a show about allyship and female friendship.
“Josie & Grace” opened in May 2021 and quickly became winner of the Critic’s Choice Award for Best Play, Musical at the 2021 Orlando International Fringe Festival.
For Marinaccio and Harris, it’s personally exciting in part because they’re a couple and this is something they’ve created together. It’s allowed them to travel together and do things they might not have otherwise.
Harris hopes it will inspire folks to take a friend of their own to see two remarkable women in friendship and support a new work.
Robin Spielberg will be playing at the Faulkner Performing Arts Center at 7:30 p.m. April 30. One of America’s most popular contemporary female pianists/composers, she has been featured in live performances on such programs as “The Soul of Christmas: A Celtic Music Celebration with Thomas Moore” and “The Great American Ballroom Challenge” on PBS, CBS Saturday Morning, ABC News, Lifetime Live and NPR.
“Music smoothes the rough edges of life,” says Robin Spielberg in a recent interview. “It speaks to us when words fail, and expresses our deepest emotions.” INFO — faulkner.uark.edu, robinspielberg.com
Josie & Grace
WHEN — Originally scheduled for Jan. 20, it will be rescheduled for March
WHERE — Faulkner Performing Arts Center, 453 N. Garland Ave. in Fayetteville
COST — $20
INFO — 575-5387, faulkner.uark.edu