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A production of Jumbo proportions

BRINGING A LEGEND TO LIFE: Cush Jumbo (left) will play 20th century entertainer Josephine Baker (right)

IN TODAY'S age of games, gadgets and gizmos aimed at young children, it’s hard to imagine a British youngster finding joy in a 1930s black and white movie – especially one that wasn’t even in English.

But that’s exactly what actress Cush Jumbo recalls doing as a child. The popular British actress says she enjoyed watching old films when she was a youngster, but she was particularly taken by a film that featured a stunning black actress – who wasn’t playing a slave or a maid, but was the star of the production.

The French film with English subtitles featured the talents of US-born French actress, dancer and singer Josephine Baker. Dubbed the ‘Black Venus’ and the ‘Creole Goddess’, Baker took Europe by storm in the 1920s with her sensual and energetic entertaining style. She also used her profile to assist the American Civil Rights Movement, refusing to perform for segregated audiences, in a bid to encourage racial integration.

Acknowledging that Baker’s story is one that has rarely been told since her death in 1975, Jumbo decided to take matters into her own hands. Noting that many people of her generation know little or nothing about the celebrated entertainer, the 27-year-old wrote and will star in the one-woman production Josephine and I; a fitting tribute to the star who Jumbo explains helped her to form her own sense of cultural identity.

“I used to really like watching old movies and old musicals and I came across Josephine Baker in a movie when I was seven or eight years old,” recalls Jumbo, whose TV credits include Torchwood and My Family.

“It was a French film with subtitles and it really struck me to see an old movie star who looked a lot like me. I was really into old movies stars, but I knew very obviously that Ginger Rogers, Marilyn Monroe and Bette Davis didn’t look anything like me. But Josephine Baker looked a lot like me and she wasn’t playing the maid in this film; she wasn’t playing a subservient role. She was the star of the show, wearing a glittering dress and I thought that was really awesome.”

Though many people believe that young children are ‘colour blind’ when it comes to issues of race and racial awareness, Jumbo feels this thinking is naïve.


IN CHARACTER: Jumbo as Baker

“Kids completely pick up on those things,” says the actress who was born to a Nigerian father and an English mother. “I certainly did. And when I got older, I was able to look back in retrospect and realise that the reason I was shocked she looked like me was because she was a stunning black woman in an old movie – and in my head as a child, black people didn’t exist before 1960, when they all arrived on the Windrush!

“It’s only when you get older and educate yourself or have a family around you to educate you, that you realise the significance of these things. In the industry I work in, you have to do a lot of research and a lot of reading, and I became very aware that we’ve been slightly cheated out of our history. You don’t hear about black Victorian actors because these stories aren’t told.

“It’s not that we [black people] weren’t there during that era, but it’s as if we were completely erased. So when people say ‘kids don’t take on those things, and when they get older, they’ll be living in a multicultural society, so it doesn’t matter,’ that’s really not the point. Even if you belong to a country, if you feel like you don’t have any history there and you didn’t exist in the 1700s or in London of [Charles Dickens’ famed novel] Oliver Twist, then you feel invisible.”

Jumbo continues: “So even as a child, it was obvious to me that Josephine Baker was the only person in an old movie who looked like me. And more than her being a black woman in a movie, she was the star of the movie. She wasn’t the slave or the maid – she was the star.”

With great respect and appreciation for Baker’s achievements, does Jumbo feel a sense of pressure to bring the star’s story to life on stage?

“Not really. It’s always a joy to be in a show and bring a story to an audience. The story will mean something different to everybody and also, her life was so amazing. What she did in her life and how her life unfolded was so Shakespearian that the play almost wrote itself. You couldn’t make up what happened to her; her life just leaps off the page.

“But what I do feel pressure to do is produce something that will hopefully bring new people into the theatre, who wouldn’t ordinarily go or don’t go very much. I’d be very happy if I could achieve that.”

Josephine and I is at the Bush Theatre, 7 Uxbridge Road London W12 from July 12-August 17. For more information visit www.bushtheatre.co.uk

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