For several days and nights in Surrey, Tymisha “Tush” Harris will sing, dance and talk like entertainment icon Josephine Baker in two different stage productions.
From Oct. 5-8 at Surrey Arts Centre’s Main Stage, the Florida-based performer stars in “Josephine, a burlesque cabaret dream play” and also “Josie and Grace, a mostly historical cabaret dream play,” the latter focused on Baker’s relationship with film star Grace Kelly, who later became Princess of Monaco.
The “double feature” bookings in Surrey thrill Harris, who was stellar in “Josephine” when she brought the musical to the arts centre last October, in the first two in-person shows there since March 2020, due to pandemic gathering restrictions over the previous 600 days.
“I’m really excited,” Harris said on the phone from Orlando, “and I’m so very grateful that Surrey wants me back, this time doing two shows. I’m speechless about that, because it really means the world to me, to know that we’re touching people with these shows.”
Born in St. Louis in 1906, Josephine Baker achieved only moderate success in the United States, but became a star after moving to France in the early 1920s. She’s considered the first African-American international superstar, and Harris plays her perfectly in “Josephine,” which she also co-created, choreographed and costume-designed.
Combining cabaret, theatre and dance, the production debuted at the 2016 San Diego Fringe Festival and comes with a warning for adult content and nudity, notes a post on josephinetheplay.com.
In her day, Baker broke ground by starring alongside white romantic leading men in films, had multiple interracial marriages and same-sex relationships, and performed in men’s clothing before the term ‘drag’ existed in the lexicon. Her adopted country of France gave her the opportunity to live freely without the racial oppression of her home nation, though she never stopped yearning for acceptance in America.
While doing “Josephine,” Harris and show co-creators with Dynamite Lunchbox Productions learned more about Baker’s relationship with Grace Kelly, and a second script came to light.
“Josie and Grace,” Harris says, tells a beautiful story about two friends, with some original music and known ballads.
“We looked into her relationship with Grace and knew there was this story to tell, but in another play,” Harris explained.
“There wasn’t a lot of tabloid press or things like that in those days, and they had a very unique, personal relationship, so much so that it compelled Grace to invite Josephine to come to Monaco with her children, and her comeback tours, before Josephine died, were sponsored by Princess Grace, Sophia Loren, Mick Jagger and a couple of other superstars.
“When Josephine died,” Harris added, “Grace went to her funeral and also had a smaller funeral for family, and had her remains flown to Monaco, where she’s buried, and Grace paid for it all. Theirs was a beautiful relationship, and unique, and showed racial harmony. They were both such powerful women who needed each other as friends, that loyalty. I think that if they’d lived longer, we would have seen a lot more from them.”
The award-winning “Josephine” show has toured Canada in recent months, including dates at Edmonton and Winnipeg Fringe festivals.
In the Surrey dates for “Josie and Grace,” Harris will play opposite Alexis Jackson, as Kelly, in a first for the two actors. “It’s going to be a lot of fun to see what we create on stage,” said Harris, who’s currently doing some part-time work as a florist in Orlando.
“I’m keeping myself busy, still exploring and experimenting,” added the multi-talented performer, whose credits include assistant choreographer and backup dancing for the ’90s pop group N*SYNC, backup dancer for LFO, multiple roles at Universal Studios Orlando, a role in the hit movie series Bring It On, among other projects.
At Surrey Arts Centre, “Josephine” will be staged twice in early October, at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 6 and again at 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 8. “Josie and Grace,” meanwhile, will hit the boards three times at the Bear Creek Park theatre, first at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 5, then at 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 7 and again at 2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 8.
For tickets and more details, visit tickets.surrey.ca or call 604-501-5566.