In 2015, Tymisha Harris was feeling a little low.
A performer, costume designer and choreographer, the El Paso, Tx., native had moved to Orlando to hone her skills “through the school of hard knocks,” she said.
In the 1990s, she won gigs as an assistant choreographer and back-up dancer for N*SYNC, as well as a backup dancer for LFO, and took roles at Universal Studios in Orlando.
Later, Harris impersonated Tina Turner.
She told a colleague she was ready for a change — to star in a production, rather than in the ensemble — and the pair began to work on a show about the 60s icon; however, their dreams faded when the Tina Turner Musical appeared on Broadway.
Then, a friend had an idea: Why not tell the story of Josephine Baker?
“All the bells and whistles fired off in my head,” Harris recalled in an interview with the Tri-City News on March 24.
Soon, Harris, Michael Marinaccio and his writer friend, Tod Kimbro, were knee-deep in research about the life of the American-born French entertainer, who was one of Europe’s most popular and highest-paid performers in the 1920s, was the first Black woman to star in a major motion picture and lobbied for social justice.
In 2016, the trio flew to San Diego for its fringe festival to workshop the musical before a live audience; their first crowd had 14 viewers but, by the end of the run, they had oversold their performances.
They had also clinched two fest awards: Outstanding Solo Performance and Best Show.
“We figured we had something good on our hands,” Harris said.
Back home in Orlando, they refined the production — “more or less to what it is now,” Harris said — and played three sold-out runs before launching a North American tour in 2017.
From April 5 to 9, Josephine will be at the Evergreen Cultural Centre (1205 Pinetree Way) with performances each night at 8 p.m., plus a 3 p.m. matinee on Saturday.
(As it contains adult content and nudity, the show is for ticket holders ages 18 and older.)
Harris admits she didn’t know much about Baker’s history before she began her journey. As a teen, Harris had read Baker’s profile in Encyclopedia Britannica.
Later, Harris watched the HBO historical film/drama about Baker and felt a connection with the triple threat, whom Harris believes had her history “pushed aside.”
“Without her, I don’t think we would be seeing the huge stars that we have now like Billie Holiday and Beyoncé,” Harris said.
“She championed civil rights and was trying to help Americans reconcile with their past.
“I really feel she cared about America and wanted to be loved there, but wasn’t accepted.”
Harris said Josephine has had such rave reviews that she, Marinaccio and Kimbro have developed a new production called Josie & Grace, which explores the friendship between Baker and Grace Kelly, the Academy Award-winning actor and princess who married Prince Rainier III of Monaco.
It was because of Kelly that Baker was buried at the Monaco Cemetery in 1975.
Last November, Baker entered the Panthéon in Paris as the first Black woman to receive one of France’s highest honours.