Orlando Shakes honors two powerful Black female artists with crucial ties to the civil rights movement

Tymisha Harris as Josephine Baker
Tymisha Harris as Josephine Baker Photo by Von Hoffman, courtesy of Michael Marinaccio

With February being Black History Month, and Presidents' Day observed on this coming Monday, Orlando Shakes is honoring both occasions with a pair of productions inspired by two powerful Black women who used their artistic voices to help establish Washington, D.C.'s Lincoln Memorial as the symbolic center of America's civil rights movement.

First up is My Lord, What a Night, which is available for on-demand streaming now through Feb. 14. This National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere by playwright Deborah Brevoort (Women of Lockerbie) explores the unlikely real-life relationship between famed physicist Albert Einstein (Eric Zivot) and African American opera singer Marian Anderson (Sheryl Carbonell), who experienced racial discrimination despite being acclaimed as her era's greatest vocalist.

Brevoort, Carbonell and Zivot joined other members of the cast and crew for a Facebook chat prior to the play's premiere to discuss the impact of the events it depicts on our present-day politics.

Brevoort's interest in Anderson began with a commission for a one-act play set in New Jersey. Her research led her to the 1937 encounter between Anderson, who was denied lodging at a whites-only hotel while on tour, and her fan Einstein, whose offer of shelter sparked a lifelong friendship.

Brevoort calls that chance encounter a "prelude" to Anderson's 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial for an integrated audience, which she says "historians now recognize as the starting bell for the civil rights movement. ... [Anderson] established the Lincoln Memorial as the symbol of civil protest in the United States, and that is the symbol that has endured to this day."

"It was both a thrill and a scare" to play Anderson, says Carbonell, who studied rare footage of the diva appearing on Groucho Marx's game show What's My Line? to observe her mannerisms and speaking patterns. "She fought with her voice, and that is what I took away from that. I took that quite seriously, and apply that to my own life. I think it's OK for us to use our voice, literally and figuratively, in the way that we were meant to use it."

Due to COVID-19, original plans to present My Lord, What a Night for live audiences were scrapped. The show was instead filmed on the Lowndes Shakespeare Center's Goldman stage under strict safety precautions; even the teacups and chocolates were carefully choreographed to avoid contact between actors.

"We filmed over about a two-week period. We tended to film in about four-minute chunks, and we did 178 takes," says artistic director Jim Helsinger. "Everybody wore their masks under social distancing until we actually filmed, and then when we were filming, they had to stay six feet apart. ... There were a couple situations [where] they got closer, but they could not speak." Clever editing covered any awkward pauses.

Following in My Lord's footsteps from Feb. 17 through March 12 as Shakes' first in-person production of 2021 is Josephine, starring Orlando actress Tymisha Harris, who created the "burlesque cabaret dream play" with Michael Marinaccio and Tod Kimbro.

The award-winning biography follows Jazz Age icon Josephine Baker's rise from poverty to international superstardom, climaxing in her participation in Martin Luther King Jr.'s historic March on Washington, where she was the only woman to speak from the Lincoln Memorial.

"I believe that the show has the power to make people think about themselves, think about their actions and how they relate to people. And with what happened this past year [with Black Lives Matter], maybe that will hit a little more," says Harris. "There are a lot of things that Americans don't talk about too deeply, because we don't know how. ... We have to take a look at ourselves. And I think that the show has the power to do that."

If not for the pandemic, Josephine would have spent the past year touring Europe and Canada, and would currently be in Australia and New Zealand. Quarantine waylaid those ambitious plans, although they were able to perform last fall in a New Jersey parking garage.

On the bright side, because the Shakes tapped Josephine as a late substitute for their previously scheduled production of Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill, Central Florida audiences now have another opportunity to experience this moving memory musical, before the team moves on to focus on a sister script about Baker's friendship with Princess Grace of Monaco that's set to debut at May's Orlando Fringe Festival.

Josephine will be staged in Shakes' newly covered outdoor courtyard, which was upgraded late last year with CARES Act funding. Precautions for the cast and crew have included regular onsite COVID testing, and temperature checks and masks are required for all attendees under the limited-capacity tent, which has been transformed into the gardens of Baker's beloved Château de Milandes.

"We're doing everything we can to make sure that it's a really safe production, [and] we want to make sure that the audience feels like they have value for their ticket," says Marinaccio.

"Our hope is that audiences will be so excited to get back out and see some theater again that they will appreciate it and understand that this is what we have to do right now."

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