WINNING THE ROLE OF JOSEPHINE BAKER in the Ensemble Theatre’s musical Josephine Tonight meant two things for actor DeQuina Moore: a strict diet and lots of research.
The curvy but slim Moore had never been asked to lose weight for a role, so she was surprised when director Patdro Harris said, So, what are we going to do about your diet?
“But once I realized how skimpy some of the costumes were, I thought, yeah, I better lose a few pounds,” she says, laughing.
Like many, Moore had an awareness of Baker: a legendary beauty, a talented but mostly untrained dancer with a natural knack for comedy and penchant for scanty costumes who found worldwide fame in Paris. Or at least, that’s what Baker became. Josephine Tonight, with music by Wally Harper and lyrics by Yellen, chronicles her early life, before her success in Paris.
“The play starts when she was 15 and already working on her third husband,” Moore tells us. It covers her time in a low-class vaudeville show, and eventually her making it in New York.
Much of the action centers on Baker’s relationship with her mother, Carrie McDonald. A frustrated performer who dreamed of stardom but never made it on stage, McDonald was a severe woman who belittled Baker.
“It was a complex relationship," Moore says. "She tore Josephine down so that she would know what to do when the world tried to tear her down. It was, I am going to tell you that you ain’t nothing because the world’s going to tell you that, and you’re going to have to know how to deal with it."
Moore built on the similarities between herself and Baker in developing her role. “Her love of the stage, I have that," she says. "I understand why she had to be on stage, any stage, why she had to perform. And her love of her mother—I certainly have that."
There are also distinct differences between Moore and Baker, differences that were equally important in informing the performance.
“There’s a moment in the show when two producers are like, ‘You are not good enough. You’re too ugly. You’re too skinny. You’re too black.’ And she says, ‘Well, who’s going to care about that when they see me dance?’ My response would have been ‘Oh, my God!’ But she’s so sure of herself it doesn’t matter what they say. I admire her for that. I hope I can grow into that."
“It really stings when they say that she’s too black,” Moore adds. “That hurts me a lot. But the fact that she dealt with it means that I have to deal with it. And that still happens! I’ve been told, ‘Well, we’re going to go with this other girl for the role. You’re the better actress but she has the right look.’ They mean the right skin color. It’s clear discrimination by your own people, but it’s the reality.”
Another difference between the two women is the way they handle nudity. Moore says she shies away from nudity on stage. Baker was very free with her body, very comfortable being nude on stage. This means Moore will perform Baker’s legendary banana dance wearing the famous skirt made of nothing but bananas. “Everybody asks me about the banana dance,” she laughs. “Yes, there’s a banana dance. Everybody knows her for that. But she was so much more.”
Baker, explains Moore, worked with the French resistance during World War II, smuggling messages to and from the Freedom Fighters. She was given a full military funeral for her service in acknowledgement of her service. She adopted and raised 10 children from a variety of countries and backgrounds, living with them all in France. She was a brilliant businesswoman. And she never stopped fighting against racism. During the 1950s, she demanded that her audiences be integrated or she would not perform. She was at the March on Washington in 1963.
“People remember the banana dance,” Moore says. “The truth is that if there had been no Josephine Baker, there would be no Brandy, no Monica, no Beyoncé, no Sevyn Streeter, and no Halle Berry.”
June 27–July 28. Tickets from $42. The Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main. 713-520-0055. More info and tickets at ensemblehouston.com.