National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene

Josephine Baker: Friend to the Comedian Harmonists

NYTF closes Black History Month with a powerful story of allyship.

It might be difficult to conceptualize just how famous the Comedian Harmonists were at the peak of their continents-spanning career, but we can help try to put it in perspective.

Josephine Baker makes a brief but pivotal appearance in HARMONY: A NEW MUSICAL, played by Ana Hoffman. Her place in this story illustrates just how far the Comedian Harmonists had traveled on their way to the top. Baker’s collaboration with the Harmonists represents a celebration of their odds-defying success.

Baker is synonymous with any image you may have in your head of the flapper in the 1920s. She was one of the first Black American expatriates, electrifying the French stage with acclaimed performances that were deemed too cheeky and racy for Americans of the time. Some say she was the first-ever Black international superstar. 

Her reputation as a performer can only be eclipsed by her reputation as an activist. After renouncing her American citizenship, Baker could have easily lived on her French success alone — but she had bigger plans and bigger ideals. An ardent supporter of civil rights, Baker refused to perform for segregated audiences when she traveled back to the states. Coretta Scott King, the widow of Martin Luther King Jr., even offered Baker a leadership position in the movement following her husband’s death. 

Like the Harmonists, Baker’s very existence was a political problem for her home country. It’s a strange and unique kismet that brought them together to create a three-song record, featuring a cover version of “Sous le Ciel d’Afrique,” the hit song from Baker’s hit film Princess Tam Tam. You can hear the songs they recorded together here: 

Sous Le Ciel D’Afrique

Baker recorded with only the Jewish members of the former Comedian Harmonists — Erich Collin, Roman Cycowski, and Harry Frommermann. They’d been exiled from Germany the previous year, forbidden to perform with the non-Jewish members of their ensemble (who remained in Germany performing under the name Meistersextett). The group would never reunite, professionally or personally. But these essential recordings from 1935, preserved to history, are a testament to Baker’s commitment to justice. 

We could have totally lost the Comedian Harmonists — to time, to systematic destruction, and to antisemitism. That we are able to tell this story, onstage and on the page, assures us of the power of coalition, allyship, and good art.

Harmony – A New Musical
7 Weeks Only!
Performances begin March 23, 2022
More information and tickets HERE

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