Deborah Cox has recorded seven R&B albums and starred on Broadway in Aida and Jekyll & Hyde. She’s set to appear in the new musical Josephine at Sarasota, Fla.’s Asolo Repertory Theatre April 27–May 29 as Josephine Baker, the U.S.-born French entertainer known for her barely-there costumes and vivacious personality.
What do you connect with in the character of Josephine Baker?
I’ve always been a lover of musicians and artists who are diverse—who have many different approaches to their artistry. Josephine Baker, and the modern-day ones—Tina Turner, Diana Ross, Cher, Madonna, Aretha Franklin—those artists can sing anything. Some of them dance, and some of them have broadened their reach by performing and acting. And that’s always what I saw myself doing. I always saw myself as a singer/actor/dancer who can take on any role. So this role has just been one of those dream roles where I am able to show and do many different things. Not just singing but acting and dancing as well. It is a slight departure from when I did Jekyll & Hyde; I did a little bit of dancing, but it was primarily acting. Same with Aida, which was very much an emotionally draining role. But Josephine is the most complex. Ever.
How are you preparing for the dance-heavy role?
I have been in Pilates, doing ballet, and just physically getting myself prepared. It’s a very strenuous role, because there is a lot of dance—from ballet to African, from modern to tap. Really it’s the most physical and most challenging role I’ve ever taken on, so I’ve been in that mode for the past year. Acting is something that you’ve just got to immerse yourself in, and you can’t go halfway. You’ve got to go full-on.
Josephine Baker was a woman with lots of surprises up her sleeve; in World War II, she even smuggled secret messages for the French Resistance on her sheet music. What was an unexpected thing you learned about her?
I think the thing that surprised me the most was just how relentlessly fearless she was as a woman and as an activist. She spoke seven languages, she was a pilot, she learned how to dance on pointe—she just did everything to the extreme, including adopting 12 children from all over the world to prove her point that people can live in harmony. These were just things that she was on a personal mission to show the world.
She was also known for wearing a skirt made of 16 bananas in La folie du jour at the Folies Bergère in Paris. Will you be donning any fruit in this production?
I haven’t seen anything yet, but I know the inspiration that they are pulling from. I am very excited. She is one of those women where the costumes were an extension of her personality and her persona onstage, and so we are really going to make sure that we capture the glamour, the sexiness, the classiness—she was all of that in one, and I am looking forward to seeing what these costumes look like.
What time frame of Josephine’s life does the musical focus on?
From 1935 to 1945. The way that this story is told—it is beautifully written—you get much more of a sense of this complex woman in the time of terrible racism in America and just how she overcame that. Well, not overcame it, but her fight and her struggling. Fighting for the French, fighting Hitler head-on. For her to be doing the kinds of things she was doing in her time was just unbelievable. So we really explore all of that while telling the story of her longing for love.
Baker referred to her 12 adopted children as the “Rainbow Tribe,” and would charge tourists to hear them sing. Do you also encourage your children to perform?
I encourage them to follow their dreams. My children are musical—they play instruments and they sing, and they do it very well. But I think when they start to develop a real passion for it, I want to make sure that they really have fallen in love with it. Performing is something that you just have to have a hunger for it. If you don’t have it, it’s not worth putting all the time and energy in. I believe in steering children in the way that they sort of gravitate to. Right now, I’d say two of the three are looking like music might be a part of their thing. But, we’ll see. It’s still too early to tell.
This is a big year for you. In addition to portraying Josephine, you’ll be on the national tour of The Bodyguard, on top of recording a new album. How are you juggling this with your music?
It’s like you put on different hats. I just put blinders on and I go for it and focus on the task at hand. Both shows have been in my spirit and in my body for a very long time. And I’ve kept performing and kept doing what I do so that I know when it’s showtime it will be that time that I show up and do my thing. I’ve got a really great team around me with this show—both shows. And that is half the battle.