Review: A Haunting Tribute to Josephine Baker Arrives at the Met Museum | Modern Society of USA

Review: A Haunting Tribute to Josephine Baker Arrives at the Met Museum

Review: A Haunting Tribute to Josephine Baker Arrives at the Met Museum

In the 1935 film “Princesse Tam-Tam,” Josephine Baker’s title character is at a chic club when she forgets herself — and her lessons in acting white — at the sound of an African drum. As Baker enters into ecstatic communion with a feverish conga beat, the image cuts back and forth between the black drummer and the floppy-limbed, convulsing black dancer.

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 in “Princesse Tam-Tam.”

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.

Ms. Bullock, who like Baker was born in St. Louis, wrote in the program notes that she, too, has sometimes felt the expectation to embrace exotic roles. She became fascinated with Baker’s story, which led from the black vaudeville circuit in Jim Crow America to stardom in Paris, a World War II role in the French Resistance and, back in the United States, public advocacy for the civil rights movement. In this work, which has been revised after previous versions unveiled at festivals in 2016, Ms. Bullock probes the cruelties and constraints that molded Baker and continue to afflict black artists.

Mr. Sorey is a master of fashioning chameleonic soundscapes that fluidly adopt shifting moods, colors and styles. His approach to the songs made famous by Baker is one of deconstruction and recomposition. Most numbers are slowed down and set to harmonies that morph from quiet lyricism to frayed dissonances, with Mr. Sorey’s subtle percussion work adding a nervous sheen.

When Baker sang it in 1933, “Si J’étais Blanche” (“If I Were White”) was jaunty, teasing and sly. Here it became eerie and bitter, with splintering flutter-tongued notes from the wind instruments over an ominous rumble offsetting Ms. Bullock’s inky, deep voice.

The poet Claudia Rankine created powerful spoken monologues that intersperse musical numbers, drawing on Baker’s own words. These sketch a portrait far removed from the droll, pliable sex object, touching on traumatic memories of racial violence and their lingering effects on Baker’s relationships. (She married four times, beginning in 1919 when she was 13.)

“All of me was already owned,” Ms. Bullock said in one monologue. This was followed by “C’est Lui,” a song that listeners in 1934 might have taken for little more than a coquettish confession by a girl irredeemably attracted to bad boys. Here, the wail of a saxophone cut through the space like a siren while Ms. Bullock’s voice turned chilly and hard.

But there were also times when Mr. Sorey created luscious, finely crafted songs that held echoes of Messiaen or Poulenc and made the most of Ms. Bullock’s richly textured voice.

In a tribute to Baker, an icon of the Charleston, some dance is expected. But when Ms. Bullock broke into movement — flashing almost-bare breasts and quoting some of the angular gestures made famous by Baker — she did so to the accompaniment of total silence, with only the sound of her increasingly labored breath amplified in space. Where Baker’s dancing communicated liberation and joy, Ms. Bullock’s felt caged and desperate.

“I ran,” she had said earlier, in a monologue on Baker’s escape from Jim Crow America, “though everyone called it dancing.”

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