The only way Mamie Bush can find true happiness is through Josephine Baker.
Josephine not only will help Mamie fulfill dreams but win back her husband and child. All Mamie has to do is believe.
And she does. Mamie not only identifies with the transformative legend, she traveled to Paris to see where, in 1926, Josephine wore her famous banana girdle in “La Follie Du Jour.”
Mamie — pronounced Mah-MEE — will wear her own banana skirt to win back her family in the opening of a New Orleans cabaret show when the Louisiana Voices of Women Theatre Company performs Elizabeth Brown-Guillory’s “La Bakair” on Saturday.
The show marks the theater company’s inaugural production and runs for two performances in the Hartley/Vey Studio Theatre in the Shaw Center for the Arts. It also is part of the Women’s Council of Greater Baton Rouge’s week-long Celebration of Women.
The company, also known as the LA VOW Theatre Company, was founded last spring by Aileen Hendricks with a mission to nurture female artists and encourage, support and produce “innovative works that explore the unique female experience while cultivating and enhancing women’s artistic, social and personal well-being.”
Hendricks was able to achieve a longtime dream of founding this company after retiring from a professorship in Southern University’s now defunct Theatre Department.
“Male playwrights have written plays with women’s characters, but they can’t do it like women,” Hendricks says. “This gives the woman playwright a voice, and it gives women a chance to perform plays written by women. When you create this kind of equality, society benefits educationally, culturally and economically.”
For its production, LA VOW’s board of directors chose Church Point native Brown-Guillory’s play about a young New Orleans woman who draws inspiration and strength from the life of Josephine Baker, who defied racial odds in the 1920s to emerge as one of the top performers in Paris.
The St. Louis native was known throughout the world and was welcome everywhere except in racially divided America, where she spent her childhood working as a maid in wealthy white neighborhoods.
“Josephine was able to return back to America after a while,” says Nancy Lynch-Lewis, who plays Mamie. “Mamie leaves her husband and child in New Orleans to go to Paris to learn more about Josephine.”
Mamie’s trip is a pilgrimage of sorts, her way of following in Baker’s footsteps, but she realizes some things have changed upon returning home.
“Peter still loves her,” Wendell Lewis says.
He speaks of his character Peter, Mamie’s husband. Peter lives with his mother, Mildred Bush, played by Patricia A. Thomas. Mildred hates Mamie and encourages Mamie’s best friend, Kendra, to romance Peter in Mamie’s absence.
“But Peter is clueless,” Lewis adds.
“And the relationship between Kendra and Peter really hasn’t become close in that sense,” says Niesha Bentley, who plays Kendra. “But there’s a sort of rivalry between Kendra and Mamie.”
“Kendra is the kind of friend who always tried to date Mamie’s boyfriends,” Lynch-Lewis explains.
And in the middle of it all is New Orleans club owner Berenice, Mamie’s surrogate Jewish mother. Berenice once lived in Paris and was a close friend to the real Josephine Baker and has opened her club to Mamie’s cabaret act.
“Berenice is also there for comic relief,” says Hendricks, who also is directing the play.
Lynch-Lewis, meantime, also heads Scotlandville Magnet High School’s drama program, which is in the midst of staging Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast.” Lynch-Lewis also is directing the musical.
“I’m working on both at the same time,” she says. “It’s intense, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I had to rehearse the musical while researching Josephine Baker, and I went on YouTube to learn more about her and how she performed. She had some moves.”
Baker also was known for performing nude and partially nude, many times wearing the banana girdle while topless.
“I’ll be wearing a skin-tone suit when I wear the banana suit, but I thought, ‘I’m not Josephine Baker, I don’t have her body — can I wear this banana skirt?’” Lynch-Lewis says. “Then I thought, ‘Yes, I can. I’m going to wear that skirt.’”
And she’ll help Mamie find happiness by channeling Josephine Baker.
- CAST: Nancy Lynch-Lewis, Mamie; Aileen Hendricks, Berenice Klinger; Wendell Lewis, Peter Bush; Patricia A. Thomas, Mildred Bush; Niesha Bentley, Kendra Gonzalez
- ARTISTIC STAFF: Aileen Hendricks, director; Niesha Bentley, assistant director; De’Anna Ernst, scenic designer
2WHAT: The inaugural production of the Louisiana Voices of Women Theatre Company
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Saturday and Monday
WHERE: Hartley/Vey Studio Theatre in the Shaw Center for the Arts, 100 Lafayette St.
TICKETS/INFORMATION: (225) 344-0334 or www.manshiptheatre.org