The Black Pearl

Deborah Cox on the woman behind the name and the Sarasota world premiere of Josephine.

Rising from poverty in turn-of-the-century St. Louis to the most celebrated stages in Paris, through the French Resistance in World War II and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, the story of Josephine Baker is a transcontinental whirlwind of art, politics, intrigue and scandal, of righteousness and courage, made no less remarkable by the barriers broken as the first black international sex symbol. Celebrating the woman and her story, the Broadway-bound musical Josephine presents Baker at the height of her career in Paris, indulging an affair with the Swedish Crown Prince Gustav IV as the Germans moved ever closer. But first, the production enjoys its world premiere run this month at the Asolo Repertory Theatre with Grammy-nominated, platinum-selling R&B star Deborah Cox in the title role.

No late addition, Cox has been following—even shepherding—the project for years. She remembers early child becoming enamored with Baker’s story—a black woman who stood up and fought for equality, justice and what she wanted from life. The stories were simultaneously “fascinating” and “shocking,” Cox says, and she read more and more, biography after biography. But she never expected it would one day be preparation for the role of a lifetime—and all the baggage that comes with it. “It’s nerve-wracking doing a project like this because you’re portraying an actual person,” she says. “I just dive in. I stay focused and try to capture as much of the essence of the person as possible.” More books followed, but Cox also viewed reels of old footage, getting familiar with Baker’s voice and movements. Meeting with Harry Belafonte and dancers from Baker’s time at the Folies-Bergère—the still-standing, still-famous Parisian cabaret that was Baker’s stomping ground—she received their blessing, with Belafonte remarking how Cox “captured the spirit” of Baker in those days. Continue reading here

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