It was the role almost every black actress in America would have killed to strip for: the fanciful American singer Josephine Baker, who in the ’20s was the rage of Paris with her provocative, nearly nude dances and who died there in 1975 at age 68, still singing but broke. Indeed, hundreds of women (including Irene Cara) were in the running for the lead in HBO’s two-hour TV movie The Josephine Baker Story (which runs through March). Called back a second time, one of the hopefuls, Lynn Whitfield, was furious: She had submitted an elaborate 20-minute audition video and resented being asked to top it. Director Brian Gibson, who thought the slick clip gave her an unfair advantage, remembers that second audition as unnerving. “She was like another woman, and it wasn’t Josephine Baker,” he says. “It was more Revenge of the Dragon Lady. She gave a powerful performance, but we weren’t auditioning for Medea.”
Greek or not, to Whitfield it seemed like a tragedy. “I fell the part slipping away,” she says. “They were searching under every rock for Josephine, and there she was, under their noses.”
Fifteen months later, Whitfield, 37, laughs at the memory and snuggles up to her new husband—Brian Gibson. Married in London last July 4, they’ve settled down in the three-story, Spanish-style house in the Hollywood Hills that Gibson, 46, bought nine years ago when he moved from his native England. It’s a match the St. Louis-born Baker would surely have approved of: Josephine broke not only sexual taboos but racial ones, and with her last husband, French bandleader Jo Bouillon, she adopted 12 children of different nationalities. She called them her Rainbow Tribe. Now Lynn and Brian are expecting a child in July. “I’m having an avalanche of good fortune,” she says.
But for Whitfield, best known for her role as the young mother Ciel in the 1989 ABC movie The Women of Brewster Place, romance came on the heels of a stormy rehearsal period in which she and Gibson waged a war of wills. “It wasn’t a courtship,” she says. “It was more like right into marriage counseling.” Even on the battlefield the attraction was obvious, but while shooting in Budapest (which served, variously, as Paris, New York City and North Africa), Whitfield was determined not to consummate the relationship. “No affair,” she says. “I couldn’t be frivolous and reckless. Also, I would be too vulnerable, giving up too much of my power as the actress.” When the shoot came to an end, so did resistance.
“If we’d dated and gotten intellectual about it,” says Lynn, who was married briefly when she was 19, “we probably would’ve backed out.” Instead, they quickly wed in a civil ceremony in London, honeymooned on a lake in Italy, then flew to New Orleans for a wedding dinner with her family. Race was never an issue. “I decided that if I found a soul I could walk with,” says Whitfield, “I was going to do that without a lot of prejudgments.”
Mixing love with the biggest role of her career was a challenge for Whitfield, but not the only one. A longtime admirer of Baker, she studied old newsreels and a 1987 documentary, Chasing a Rainbow, before shooting started. Nervous about taking off her clothes, Lynn was reassured by photos of young African women, “their breasts kissing the sky, their heads held high,” she recalls. “If you do it in pride and joy, what people feel from you is difficult to misinterpret.”
For Whitfield, such pride was an inheritance. Her light-skinned mother, Jean Butler, vice president of the Louisiana Housing Finance Agency in Lynn’s hometown of Baton Rouge, “could have gone passant blanc at any time,” says Lynn, whose maternal great-grandfather was a white plantation owner. “But she chose to be a pillar of the black community.” Lynn’s father, Valerian Smith, a dentist, conducted a community chorus. Whitfield’s brother is a financial consultant; one sister is in hotel management, the other is a theater publicist. Although her parents divorced when Lynn was 15, she took their pride to heart, becoming the third generation in her family to attend Howard University in Washington, D.C. Naturally she studied drama. “From the time I was 5, I would stay up and watch old movies,” she says.
Shortly thereafter, Lynn married Van-tile Whitfield, artistic director of the D.C. Black Repertory Company, who was 22 years her senior. “In that relationship I was the little girl,” she says. The marriage lasted four years, and in the meantime Whitfield got her start onstage as a member of New York City’s Negro Ensemble Company. Her first film role came in 1983’s Doctor Detroit, starring Dan Aykroyd, and recently she has taken on the recurring role of investigative journalist Maggie Mayfield in ABC’s Equal Justice.
Now Whitfield is gingerly exploring marriage to Gibson, who hails from Southend-on-Sea, near London, where his father was a carpenter. After winning a full scholarship to Cambridge, he taught there after graduation before becoming a director for the BBC. Stateside, he won an ACE award for HBO’s Murderers Among Us: The Simon Wiesenthal Story. “We’re writing our constitution,” says Lynn of their union. “It’s sticky. But when we go to a party and he’s across the room, I feel a real connection.”
For her next project, Whitfield says she’d like to play ’60s radical Angela Davis, even as she laments the dearth of parts for black women. “It’s like being all dressed up with no place to go,” she says. That was never a problem for Josephine Baker.
Tim Allis, Lois Armstrong in Los Angeles