Exposing Perle Noire
“Miss Baker… has, alas, almost become a little lady. Her caramel-colored body, which overnight became a legend in Europe, is still magnificent, but it has become thinned, trained, almost civilized. Her voice, especially in the vo-deo-do’s, is still a magic flute that hasn’t yet heard of Mozart… There is a rumor that she wants to sing refined ballads; one is surprised that she doesn’t want to play Othello. On that lovely animal visage lies now a sad look, not of captivity, but of dawning intelligence.”
JANET FLANNER, THE NEW YORKER 1930
I was first compared to Joséphine Baker when I began my studies of classical music in college and was told that because of the way that I looked, I would likely be asked to sing a lot of exotic repertoire. Sparked by complex feelings and questions around identity, I began to research the life, performances, and music of the entertainer, who, at that time, I identified as “the woman who danced in a banana skirt.”
My research revealed that Joséphine and I had a few things in common—we were both born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri, danced a lot as children, and moved to New York to pursue performing. But this is where our paths diverged: because of discrimination, she emigrated to Paris in 1925. There she became not only the highest-paid female performer and the highest-paid Black performer, but the highest-paid entertainer the world had ever seen. This all occurred while across the water in the United States Jim Crow laws prevailed and women’s suffrage was less than a decade old.
“Exoticism” dictated her early career—she was sometimes dressed as a bird, locked in a cage, singing of her “home” in Africa (“Afrique”), even though she didn’t visit there until later in life. Some may view this as exploitation, but I believe for Joséphine Baker, it was the first time she could reveal herself in front of an audience on her own terms. Even that initial image I had of her in a banana skirt is a powerful one of agency – a female force at the center of a crude representation of men.
While many speak of Joséphine’s larger than life presence through the lens of performance, I think her presence was most beautifully realized by her involvement in France’s resistance movement during World War II. Recognition from her home country wasn’t confirmed until the Civil Rights Movement, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. invited her to speak at the March on Washington in 1963, and when Coretta Scott King asked her to be the face of the movement after King’s assassination.
So to say she was turned into an icon would not be an overstatement, but for me Joséphine Baker is not merely an icon for women. She is not just an icon for black people. She is an icon of liberty. She challenged and combated her environment through various modes of expression. In music, however, she was limited in terms of experimentation. She left the US just as the Harlem Renaissance was coming into full bloom, and mostly worked as a vaudevillian dancer early on. She didn’t sing the blues and missed the beginning of the jazz age, although she flourished in the stylings of the French music hall, in a neat frame where she could be heard without being too confrontational.
I first programmed songs Joséphine was known for on a 2014 debut recital program. I shared songs that touched on themes that seemed to pervade her life—exploitation and objectification, issues of identity, and the difficulties in maintaining intimate relationships—and the roles that she played—an exotic entity in a foreign place, a charmer, activist, and nurturer.
The director Peter Sellars encouraged me to then broaden my musical exploration of her and her impact on me as a performer. Peter invited the poet Claudia Rankine to contribute text; I felt it pertinent to consider Baker’s body through dance, so Peter asked the choreographer Michael Schumacher to develop a deconstructed Charleston; then the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) introduced me to the composer Tyshawn Sorey. Together we compiled words, movement, and music that examined and highlighted various undercurrents of Joséphine Baker’s life in an effort to share an in-depth portrait of a dynamic being.
After performing the source material in a relatively raw form, Tyshawn and I retitled the work, Perle Noire: Meditations for Joséphine, because this project was not so much about her, but for her. Bringing Perle Noire to The Met’s Great Hall * as a part of my residency has presented a new opportunity to collectively reexamine this material and to investigate how to more pointedly share why the themes permeating Baker’s story are still resonant today.
Baker once said, “Since I personified the savage on the stage, I tried to be as civilized as possible in daily life.” How exhausting it must have been for her to be preoccupied with how she was perceived onstage and off. Admittedly, I have also been fearful, as a performer and person, about how I would be projected and exposed as a woman of color in the public eye; but when I took on the charge of researching Baker’s history, and then embodying that history onstage for others to witness, that fear began to dissolve.
I have never intended to impersonate Joséphine Baker. I am not interested in the projection of a black popular singer who is exoticized, eroticized, and proclaimed as an extraordinary exception to most black people. I do not know how to play into the trappings of a brilliant black operatic soprano who represents absolute dignity and power, impenetrable in her strength, and ever grateful for opportunities. I do not know how to play into those characterizations because they do not reflect the complexities of human existence. What I do know is that I will not perpetuate the tropes or stereotypes of Black American performers.
As I walk down the central steps of this institution, that holds so much of the complicated, ruthless, and astonishing history of America, I am walking as myself – a more fully incorporated self, who continues to increase her capacity to embrace where she has come from, and aims to share a reality that is direct, clear, immediate, and speaks to you, right now.
* At the top of the stairs of the Great Hall, one can see Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s “The Triumph of Marius” (1729) featured in European Paintings. The Met Museum marker reads: “This work depicts the triumphal procession of the Roman general Gaius Marius, in his chariot, with the defeated African king Jugurtha, in chains, walking before him, an event that took place in 104 B.C.” King Jugurtha struggled to free his North African kingdom from Roman rule and was captured after a betrayal through a political agreement. He was later stripped of his clothes, earrings were ripped from his ears, and he died imprisoned from starvation.
“One of the most important works of art yet to emerge from the era of Black Lives Matter.”
– The New York Times
Julia Bullock inhabits the body of a reimagined Joséphine Baker on the steps of The Met’s Great Hall in this darker, more intimate consideration of the life and legacy of the famous singer, activist, and cultural icon. With texts by poet Claudia Rankine and music recomposed by Tyshawn Sorey (both MacArthur Fellows).
(author of text, with quotes by Joséphine Baker, adapted by Julia Bullock and Zack Winokut)
Tyshawn Sorey (composer, percussion, and piano)
Michael Schumacher (choreography)
Julia Bullock (soprano)
International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE)
Peter Sellars (conception)
Zack Winokur (director)
John Torres (lighting designer)
Mark Grey (sound designer)
Carlos Soto (clothing designer)
Cath Brittan (managing producer)
Ian Askew (assistant director)
THE GREAT HALL – MET MUSEUM (New York, NY)
METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART
The Great Hall (New York, NY)
A HAUNTING TRIBUTE TO JOSÉPHINE BAKER ARRIVES AT THE MET MUSEUM
Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim, The New York Times
At the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Wednesday, the soprano Julia Bullock, the museum’s artist in residence, presented “Perle Noire: Meditations for Joséphine,” a tribute to the first black international superstar and a defining figure of the Jazz Age. Here, too, the diva shared center stage with an array of drums. But Ms. Bullock and her creative partner, the percussionist-composer Tyshawn Sorey, offered a very different image from the exoticized object of European fantasies… Their darkly captivating show offered a haunting investigation into the psychological shadows and public constructions that shaped the career of a woman who was “no more primal than Princess Grace,” as Ms. Bullock says in the piece, but for whom the most direct route to entertainment royalty and a chateau in the Périgord meant donning a banana skirt.
A COMPLEX SOMETIMES FURIOUS PORTRAIT OF JOSEPHINE BAKER
Brin Solomon, San Francisco Classical Voice
There were absolutely no bananas. At first glance, the program for soprano Julia Bullock’s Perle Noire: Meditations for Joséphine (Metropolitan Museum of Art, January 16–17) suggested a straightforward revue in tribute to Joséphine Baker, the sensational black Jazz Age performer who once titillated Parisian audiences by dancing in a skirt of synthetic bananas. Instead, Bullock — with members of the International Contemporary Ensemble; composer, pianist, and percussionist Tyshawn Sorey; and director Zack Winokur — offered a singular theatrical experience brimming with grief, resilience, and fury.
IN STEP WITH JOSÉPHINE: JULIA BULLOCK AT THE MET
Eva Yaa Asantewaa, Infinite Body
The two-page, finely-written program notes Julia Bullock contributed for her production, Perle Noire: Meditations for Joséphine, performed on the stairs of the Metropolitan Museum’s Great Hall, takes me back to a practice I abandoned a couple of years ago–saving programs from all the shows I see. I no longer save them much beyond the year of their season, but this one, this one, will live with me, just as the life, struggles and example of Joséphine Baker clearly live with Bullock, a Black opera singer of profound insight and commitment to social justice.
The essay–which goes on to detail a creative process encouraged by director Peter Sellars ith a team of remarkable collaborators–ends in a proud, uncompromising affirmation of the complexity of human nature, Baker’s and Bullock’s as well. Both women aim to rip our stereotypes right out from under us.
Is it possible to not only save program notes forever but stand up and give them a rousing cheer?
YES, SHE HAS NO BANANAS: JULIA BULLOCK EMBODIES JOSEPHINE BAKER IN PERLE NOIRE
Paul J. Pelkonen, SuperConductor
The Metropolitan Museum of Art is no stranger to being used as a performance space. Operas, concerts and galas have been mounted in its galleries, atria and wide open spaces. However… Tyshawn Sorey’s Perle Noire: Meditations for Joséphine used an even more unusual location: the Grand Staircase that leads upward from the entrance hall to the upper galleries of European art. It starred the museum’s current artist in residence, the powerhouse soprano Julia Bullock in a work that was part monodrama, part song cycle.
In this work, Mr. Storey uses sophisticated techniques to alter the songs that Ms. Baker made famous. The songs were slowed, stretched, chopped and screwed, becoming sharp probes into questions of identity and the perceptions of a world that, as today, is blinded by the poison of racism. Each was powerfully delivered, often from a different point on the vast staircase by Ms. Bullock, an elegant and uncompromising figure in black velvet. With her steely presence and rich, dark soprano, she was an effective reincarnation of the famous singer, turning each of the eight songs on the program into an intense crie de couer.
Toward the end of the evening, Ms. Bullock kicked off her shoes and stripped off her top, revealing nothing but mesh underneath. The hall fell silent as she danced, barefoot down the stairs, recreating Ms. Baker’s legendary moves with a snap of wrist and jab of elbow. On and on she danced, her feet silent on the stairs into the uncompromising glare of a floor-mounted spotlight that shone up the stairs, throwing shadows.