Tymisha Harris brings legendary entertainer Josephine Baker to the Central Florida stage

By : Jeremy Williams
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Tymisha Harris had a tour de force year in 2018 with her show, “JOSEPHINE, a burlesque cabaret dream play.” Harris—who co-created the one-woman show with director-producer Michael Marinaccio and playwright-musical director Tod Kimbro—debuted “JOSEPHINE” in 2016 where it won “Outstanding Solo Performance” and “Best Show” at the San Diego Fringe Festival.

The show was a hit playing here in Orlando and across North America, but Harris and crew took “JOSEPHINE” to another level with a four-week Off-Broadway run in New York last year.Harris won rave reviews for her performance as Josephine Baker, was nominated for a 2018 Audelco Award in New York and even got a Twitter endorsement from the one-and-only RuPaul.

Now, Harris is bringing “JOSEPHINE” to Orlando Fringe’s Winter Mini-Fest and Sanford’s Theater West End this month. Harris spoke with Watermark ahead of the festival about her early days in Orlando, meeting RuPaul and the icon that is Miss Josephine Baker.

What initially brought you to Orlando?

Disney was holding auditions in El Paso at the time and everyone in my dance studio tried out. Half of us made and half didn’t, but the rest of us decided to travel on down here anyways.

So it was Disney that first brought you here?

Yeah, at first but that was short lived [laughs].

I read that you were involved with the boy bands *NSYNC and LFO when you first moved down here. How were you involved?

I was assistant choreographer for *NSYNC and a backup dancer for LFO. This was the very beginning and it was a crazy time. I had just come to Orlando, Lance [Bass] had just joined the group and I had no idea what was happening. Fresh-faced and everything, we started working with the boys at an old martial arts school off of Kirkman and 50. No one had a studio yet so that was the only space we could use and we’re in there trying to teach the boys how to dance.

*NSYNC was set apart from the other boy bands at the time partly because of their dancing. While you were working with them could you see that these guys were going to be as big as they were?

I grasped pretty quickly that this was going to be something special. I was thinking “Wow, this is going to be our New Kids [on the Block].” I remember being in the choreographer’s living room and coming up with specific dance moves just to see their bodies work in different ways.

Speaking of moves, you have some moves of your own in your show, “JOSEPHINE, a burlesque cabaret dream play,” based on the life of Josephine Baker. For those who are not familiar, who was she?

Josephine Baker was born in 1906 and she was an entertainer. She started off doing the minstrel circuit and was on Broadway for a short time in the 1920s, but then she got the opportunity to take her talents to Paris. There they accepted her and exalted her to greatness. She was the first African-American international superstar. She starred in movies and operas alongside white entertainers which, at the time, was unheard of in America. [Baker was the first person of color to star in a major motion picture, the 1934 film “Zouzou.”]

She was amazing. Over the course of her life she adopted 12 children, was a spy for the French resistance during World War II and was a civil rights activist.

Where did the idea for a burlesque cabaret based on Josephine Baker start?

I was working with Michael Marinaccio and he was saying to me that he thought I was ready to do something more. I had just opened in an ensemble play, I was working in the background and making sure we had a strong team, but I was never in the forefront of it. He said it’s time that we get something for you. We had originally thought about doing a Tina Turner show but her story has been told and it has been told well.

Josephine was this larger-than-life person whose story I didn’t think had been told well.

This isn’t your typical sit-and-watch theater experience. You interact with the audience throughout the show.

Yes. I need the personal space, I need to be able to invade other people’s space [laughs]. I need to engage with them and the burlesque aspect of it allows me to encapsulate Josephine’s glamorous start. She would break down that fourth wall and seduce the audience. She wore these fantastic costumes and was a sex symbol. She wasn’t ashamed of her body or who she was. She was a strong black woman. That’s what I want the audience to know. I help them relax and I give them a history lesson. I sing, I dance, I act and I show a little skin [laughs].

What’s the number one thing you want people to walk away from this show knowing about Josephine Baker?

I hope that it opens people’s eyes to what someone can accomplish when they aren’t stopped because of the color of their skin. She lived in a time when she was only seen for her color in America and she worked to try and break down a lot of those walls. She was an extraordinary woman who overcame all of that. She wasn’t going to sit there and live in shadows, and she ended up surpassing everyone’s expectations, her own expectations.

You were in New York last year, you took the show Off-Broadway. What was that like, being able to take this show to the theater capitol of the world?

I feel like I’m still living on a cloud from it and I can’t wait to take it back. It is unbelievable to take an original show, an original story, that we crafted and not only show it to folks but that they kept coming back and it kept growing. I feel like we aren’t done with our run there in New York. Then to be nominated for an Audelco Award, to get recognition like that, taking a Fringe show from Orlando to New York and having it be so accepted I’m just blown away.

I can’t wait to take it back with a full band. What the folks up there saw was a new work. By the time we had taken it to New York we had changed it. So for them to take to it as they did and then tell friends about it and then come see it again and want us to be there longer, just blown away.

You got quite the endorsement from RuPaul on Twitter. He tweeted about the show after seeing it. Tell me about meeting Ru and getting that celebrity endorsement.

I can still see RuPaul’s big, bright smile in the front row. I looked to my left as I was opening my mouth and thought “Oh, that’s RuPaul.” Mike tried to tell me as I was coming down the stairs to head on stage. He said, “I don’t know how to tell you this but RuPaul is here,” and I was like “ha, ha, ha, sure.” Didn’t realize he would be in the front row, and it was opening night so I was hella nervous, and there he is staring at me.

Then for him to come backstage afterwards and tell me that he can see this show on the big screen being directed by Baz Luhrmann, my mouth was to the floor. Like did I just hear that correctly? Honestly, I just can’t wait to take it back and show more people, and have RuPaul come back and see it in a larger space with a band. Next time I’m going to be ready for him too, be like “Can I come on your show? Can we chat, let’s get some movement going on this?” [laughs].

“JOSEPHINE, a burlesque cabaret dream play” will be at Orlando Fringe’s Winter Mini-fest in the Mandel Theater (Pink Venue) Jan. 11-13 and at Theater West End Jan. 25-27. For more information on “JOSEPHINE” visit OrlandoFringe.org and TheaterWestEnd.com, respectively.

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