By Marvis Osweri
In La Négrophilie, Zakiya Markland takes us through Josephine Baker’s early years of never quite fitting in here or there due to her skin colour; light enough to get sunburn and draw envy from her darker-skinned mother…but not too light to be accepted by the New York theatre world power brokers. You see, she couldn’t pass the paper bag test. (A gimmick that drew bursts of laughter from the schoolgirls seated in front of me, their blissful naivety was kind of refreshing actually – to enjoy the humour without cringing about the racially charged undertones).
Josephine Baker had her heart set on being a star so no amount of rejection could dissuade her. When one audition judge said she’s “not right”, she tried harder, danced more, sang louder, begged better.
But then another said she’s “not light.” And you could just see Josephine’s spirits deflate as the penny dropped; she’d never be right for the roles she auditioned for because as far as the judges were concerned, she was too dark for the American Stage.
Zakiya is wonderfully expressive throughout the performance. Cleverly circumventing the danger of losing the audience as is wont to happen when one person plays multiple characters by adopting different body carriage and voices for each character, from the ingénue Josephine Baker, to the mother and grandmother, the harsh dismissive judges, and the fawning Parisienne crowd. Her range is truly impressive.
Josephine Baker’s joy at finally living her dream in Paris is palpable in Zakiya’s dance routine – complete with Baker’s signature banana skirt replica, as is her bewilderment and disappointment upon reading the Parisian reviews which were congratulatory and mocking in the same breath. Fawning and fetishizing; “The colour black alone does not dress one.”
Négrophilie literally translates to love of the negro – acceptance of black culture/identity purely as decorative for the white gaze.
One wonders what’s worse; To be rejected because you’re not good enough, or to be accepted precisely because you’ll never be, your shortfalls deemed as entertainment, serving purely to amuse?
The closing act explores how this mix of attraction and repulsion affected Baker’s perception of self.
Are things any different now than in the 1920s? Who’s to say. Political correctness might have pushed racism into the closet, they might accept your skin colour at face value but still deep down, view you as inferior, primitive, not good enough.
In the QnA after, director Tatiana Pandiani, approached a question about the current mindset in the arts as, “We may not speak that way anymore, but who knows how we still feel deep down?”
Who knows indeed.