Joe’s Pub. 7:15. Josephine and I should have begun by now. The pianist has been playing for about ten minutes. A stagehand comes up from the crowd and whispers something to him. I look at my watch again.
Behind me at the bar, a couple is almost through sipping their cocktails. I wonder: Do plays usually start this late here? My friend is nearing the bottom of her gin-based thing too. Some shards of chopped ice tumble about. She’s about to answer, but stops. There’s a commotion to our right. A woman walks hurriedly through the same door we entered to get to our seats.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry!” she says while unwrapping the scarf from around her neck.
It’s Cush Jumbo, star of the show. She ascends to the stage.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I–I can’t believe I’m this late!”
Wait, is that–? No, it can’t be. A small thing stirs inside the handbag she’s carrying. Yes, it’s–that’s a puppy!
“I’m so sorry. I’m not usually like this, but it’s dreadfully hard to get a cab in this town.”
The stagehand from earlier returns. He takes the bag with the puppy away. Jumbo drops her scarf behind the piano and then her coat there too. She slips out of her boots.
“You won’t believe it. I just left an audition for a role in this big TV drama and I was meeting the producers at the Bowery Hotel. I told them I had to be somewhere at seven but–Well, you know how producers can be.”
Is she for real? That’s the best excuse I’ve ever heard for being late! She sets up the stage with some props. It’s plausible, but maybe we’re just being had. The piano keeps bouncing along. Is this all part of the show?
She names off the film stars she watched as a kid. They fall from her lips in a warm English accent. Jumbo puts on some heels and the house lights drop lower. As she pauses center stage, she’s hit with a spotlight.
“But there was really only one star for me: Ms. Josephine Baker.”
She lifts her right hand high above her head. The English disintegrates. Her sounds becomes French from St. Louis, Missouri. She’s somebody else. I can’t look away. The actress is gone.
Jumbo flips on a tape of Baker doing an interview. She follows in harmony with the legend’s voice until–little by little–the tape runs out. Now Jumbo is the only one speaking.
Photos by Rick Stachura. “Josephine and I” at Joe’s Pub. April 2, 2015.
(1) The Playbill.
(2) Cush Jumbo at curtain call.
(This story was originally posted to my old Tumblr site on April 10, 2015.)