JO! | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader
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Moon Glow Productions, at the Firehouse

Michelle Banks's one-woman show is so small you wonder how fair you can be to the little you saw. Playing six performances before it journeys to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe (where Banks previously appeared in Free Street Theatre's Prospect and her Lana/Smoking), this new export is a truncated backstage tribute to the legendary Josephine Baker. Bedecked in Baker's trademark boa as she greets us in her costume-strewn Folies-Bergeres dressing room (an upstairs chamber with bad sight lines at the Firehouse, home space of the Latino Chicago Theater Company), Banks's Josephine tells of her escape from Saint Louis and a disapproving mother and her showbiz apprenticeship as a dresser, universal understudy, and eventual headliner. A rootless expatriate with a black Indian mother and a Spanish father, she wonders "Who are my people?" But then Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake give her a big break, and the rest is history. Add a few recollections of a Philadelphia race riot and a glimpse of Baker's need to protect her secret self, and, well, that's all she wrote. To paraphrase Ronald Reagan in King's Row, where's the rest of her?

Billed as 50 minutes long, the show lasted less than half that (or about $1 a minute for the opening night benefit). A faulty tape machine turned one Baker classic, "Bye Bye Blackbird," into an a cappella number, and one of Banks's dances, an attempt to imitate Baker's moves, looked more like a garden-variety aerobics routine. But the real culprits are the half-baked script and William King's purely promissory staging. Jo! has yet to earn its exclamation point. It may be ripe for Edinburgh but it sure isn't ready for Chicago.

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