Entertainment » Theatre

Daniel Alexander Jones :: Seeing (and Saying) Things As They Are with 'Jomama'

by Kilian Melloy
Thursday Sep 12, 2019
Jomama
Jomama  (Source:Provided)

Daniel Alexander Jones is a songwriter, theater artist, and associate professor at Fordham University. But his many talents converge in a special way: Jones has been channeling storytelling chanteuse Jomama since the '90s; but if we ever found ourselves living in a time that needed humor, honesty, and wisdom, all wrapped up in a cabaret featuring original songs, it's right now. The good news is that Jones, and Jomama, will be in the new show "Black Light," presented by American Repertory Theater at Club Oberon from Sept. 19 — Sept. 29.

EDGE had the delightful privilege of chatting with Jones recently, and hearing about Jomama, the new show... and, not least, "the juke."


EDGE: In interviews you have spoken about Jomama Jones as being her own person in some ways — as having agency and an independent voice. Do you see her the way a writer sees a character — something fictional and created, and yet exerting its own will to tell her own story? Or do you see Jomama more as a manifestation as an artistic Muse?

Daniel Alexander Jones: I see her more as the latter, and I also experience her as an aggregation of a lot of folks that were influential on me growing up. That included many of the women that I grew up around in my community — women that I worked with in my early years, and also, so many of the Black women who were prominent in the media and in arts and literature during that period of the late '70s through the 1980s. The ways in which they were carrying forward the next chapter of what we would think of as the Civil Rights movement, through a kind embodiment in their everyday lives of core values that came from that movement. So, while I feel that she's a muse in the way that I tap into her — I tune into her like a radio — I also feel that she represents a kind of ancestral energy that surrounds and suffuses what I do in my life and my work.

EDGE: Is that example of strength and that female ancestral energy the reason why Jomama is a drag persona?

Daniel Alexander Jones: I don't ever think of her as drag. Why I say that is, loving drag and loving what it is, I feel in drag, with rare exceptions, the conceit of drag is that the performer is always in the mix with the persona or the character, and the audience is delightfully aware of the performer's relationship with their character or their persona. With Jomama, I hope always to go away — Daniel leaves, and Jo comes through, I feel like I am more of a vessel for her.

And it is 'she.' It is female energy. What's funny is that anyone who has worked on any of the shows that I have done with Jomama has always said there is nothing recognizably Daniel when she's there. They have their own relationships with her. It may seem a bit woo-woo to folks, but I really think of it on a type of archetypal symbolic level, functioning somewhere in a deep place that I try not to make too much sense of.

EDGE: Something else you said in an earlier interview was to the effect that Jomama is more about asking the right questions than trying to get people to agree to any "right" answers. Is this another way of saying that we need to have a conversation — and that we need to learn to listen to one another again instead of just talking over one another?

Daniel Alexander Jones: One hundred percent! And again, one of the things that typifies the work of the women that I grew up around and with, was their commitment to spaces where that kind of conversation could happen. They were masters of engaging conflict, and I think there's often this idea that someone has to prevail in an argument. What I think they modeled was that we all can come through an argument with greater knowledge and greater understanding and, hopefully, if it's framed in the right way, we will collectively choose what is most just, what is most ethical, and what is the thing that will cause the least amount of suffering.

One of the clear indications that we have gotten so far away from that way of viewing civil space and community space is that very thing you're talking about; we're nationally entrenched in these inflexible opinions. That prevents us from being able to examine, together, the structures that are supporting that kind of division.

EDGE: And as a performer, you're not lecturing. You're presenting a mix of singing, storytelling, and theater.

Daniel Alexander Jones: Yeah, well, in many ways, I feel like I am going back to the ancient roots of theater. In ancient Egypt it was about kind of ritual of telling a story of some rite of passage in a life. We're talking about the crossroads in Black life at the time when we must choose what path we're going to take. And in ancient Greece, of course, it was a time to consider the citizenry and to come together around a dramatic performance that would raise profound ethical and moral questions. We were invited [by those theatrical traditions] to come together to think as a community. There was pageantry, there was music, there was profound beauty; I think of those things, the magic of storytelling and entertainment, as ways to open the heart and ways to open the mind so that you can have those other kinds of conversations from a place of groundedness and vulnerability, and not stay purely in a rhetorical and purely cerebral place with it. So, I have no interest in lecturing at all, but I am very much interested in us engaging these ideas.

There's also always another element of what Jomama does that's spontaneous, so if you were to come see the show two nights in the row you wouldn't see exactly the same show because she's always going to respond to who is in that room, what the energy is in that room, and certain things are asked of that room. There will be different kinds of responses and she tries to engage those responses in the moment, on the night.

EDGE: Jomama's up on stage and you get out her way and let her do her thing, but behind the scenes, you're writing the material — including several albums' worth of original songs. When you're writing songs, do you set out to write about themes and topics? Or are you letting the songs well up from your emotions and experiences?

Daniel Alexander Jones: It's a little bit of both. I have a tribe of artists from around the country... I feel that I am part of this large network of folks who are working in interdisciplinary ways, most of whom come up out of Black theater or Queer theater traditions, and we are always talking about what's up with us at any given moment, and I feel that there's usually a set of questions that are just bugging me — that keep me up at night and tend to show up in the articles that I read, or I'll happen on books or podcasts, and for sure [those issues will emerge] in my conversations with colleagues, with people that I meet in the world, with my students.

I'll get a buzz, you know... for example, may years ago I was thinking that our show "Radiate," one of the concepts in that was "the comeback," and I was thinking about [the question of] "What is resilience?" I was thinking in particular, because it was right at the beginning of the Obama administration, right after we had gone through everything with the Bush administration, we were in the Recession, and I was wondering, What is American resilience? What does that look like? Will we rebound? What are the ways in which we'll be successful at that; what the things that might catch us? It was that set of questions that led to a suite of about fifteen songs over the course of a year, a year and a half or so.

Every time I finish something like that, there will be a little lull and then I'll get a new set of questions that pester me. "Black Light" came up out of, again, this question of choice. It was about a year before we headed into the last presidential election, and I, along with so many of us, felt the charge in the air and the sense of a major shift heading our way. I was grappling with that question: What do we choose? And what are the pathways? In most mythological traditions there is, at the crossroads, a guardian. In European mythology, it's Hecate, who is a three-headed goddess, and in [classical] cosmology it is Allegra. They are often sort of trickster figures, and so I also thought about that; everything that seems to be obvious, everything that might seem to be what's in front of us as options, might not be all that there is. I was also concerned about that.

One of the things I tried to take heart in is, in many of the traditions the idea is you can't really make a wrong choice, because you will be working out whatever it is you're supposed to be working out with whatever choice you make. I don't know — I don't think we made anything but a wrong choice in that last election!

[Laughter]

Daniel Alexander Jones: But, we are certainly in the midst of this profound national reckoning. And there is no escape from the reckoning we are in; it's global, of course. Every day I feel there is a crossroads that greets us, and so in many ways I feel really fortunate because I am an artist who always needs to feel that what I'm saying is relevant to the time that I'm in. I'm not very interested in doing something just because people like it and then do it again and again and again. That's never been my thing, so I have to find a way to make it vital, and I feel very grateful that this material still really speaks to the moment that we're in.

EDGE: I'd love to hear your take on that other kind of crossroad, that intersection that you mentioned earlier: The Black American and Queer theater traditions. That intersection must be an enormously rich place to be at and work from.

Daniel Alexander Jones: What I'm really aware of is what an odd and beautiful thing it was to grow up with those identities, even as it meant I was often on the margin or the outskirts in terms of my dealings with the world, but I was always so aware, even from a young age, of my grounding in those identities. And they weren't separate; they were all part of one thing, one way of seeing the world. What's been fascinating [is], when I started making work 25 years ago there were not a lot of people like me making work, and there were not a lot of people making work that was hybrid in form, in addition to talking about blackness and queerness in the ways that I was. It was a rare thing.

And now there's a tremendous sense of gratification to see that were I to be coming of age right now, there are many people [doing such work]. I'm seeing gender fluidity, which is language I didn't have thirty years ago; and in kind of a deep, expansive idea of what blackness is and can be, for example with the Afropunk movement, so I feel like there's this amazing thing that I've done. I'll turn 50 in February, and as I'm making this work I feel like I have the gift of being able to draw on a maturity from having been in my craft for this long, from having dealt with the kinds of rites of passage in my life that I've had to deal with, at the same time that I can be in conversation with a younger generation that is with it. Like, they get all of that. They don't have to jump through some of those same crazy hoops, and they understand the things I was trying to talk about all those years ago. It's really an exciting time.

I do think that Black American art has always been grounded in the possible, and the possible in the face of impossibility. From the very earliest utterance in black music - those were songs that were written extemporaneously in response to enslavement. And the vast majority of the texts of those songs were about reaching freedom, whether it be the metaphor of freedom in Heaven or the coding of actual ways to achieve freedom through escape. I think often about that time when the people who were making that art did not believe for a moment that they themselves were going to see that freedom in their lifetime, but they believed that freedom would come. It signified something about doing the work toward liberation and toward freedom for everyone - not just for yourself.

And I think with regard to Queer art, the idea of being iconoclastic and transgressive, of deliberately mixing the colors and remixing the narrative, empowered me from very early on to kind of release the spirits of things that were frozen in time — or, were frozen ideas. I think one of the great influences on me as a teenager was the late great Sylvester. Sylvester did everything, every kind of music, and some days would represent as ultra-femme and some days would be butch, and some days would not be bothered and other days he'd be deeply emotional and spiritually connected. There's a famous quote, and I remember seeing it live when I was teenager and Sylvester was on Joan Rivers' short-lived talk show that was on Fox, and she said, "Oh, I have this fabulous black drag queen here," and he said, "No! I'm Sylvester." I loved that idea, that who any of us are is limitless. Queerness to me was this way of cracking open any of the definitions, any of the cages that either were put upon or that we found ourselves caught in. [Queerness was a way] to keep us connected to the life force. That's maybe one of my only concerns that I feel right now, in popular culture and popular discourse is getting stuck inside rigidity in identity, rather than seeing identity as space for liberated experience and exploration.

EDGE Something you touched on briefly is the spiritual aspect of your show. It's been called a "spiritual revival"; the word "Afromystical" has been applied, as well, to what you're doing, and I wonder what that means. Is that a way if bringing unity to a room that might contain Black people, White people, straight people, LGBTQ people... and maybe creating a space where those identities no longer matter — at least, not to Jomama, who is there for everyone.

Daniel Alexander Jones: That's really right in line with the impulse. The only thing I would change is to say I do think the identities do matter, but they are points — I believe it was Anna Devere Smith who said one time that they are "points of departure," like, they are an anchor from which you can move. I never want to lean toward a neutrality of identity, but rather think of it as a prismatic experience. My hope is if we can see one another with curiosity. We can honor those things that are older than us — cultural traditions, experiences, language. Ways of being that are very different. You and I talking right now, I'm sure we have so many things that are different about our backgrounds, and it is possible to honor those things, and also find commonality, and also, together, find some new language, some new kind of experience. The spiritual aspect of it, you know, right now I feel like I'm in a process of coming out spiritually... in a more overt way in my work, and I think it's very easy for talk to spirituality to devolve into either a generalized kind of New Age, woo-woo thing, or be ridiculed because it is not quantifiable. And, especially when we're dealing with folks who hew toward the Left, I think it's suspect — it's so often been manipulated to negative ends.

I don't come out of a Judeo-Christian tradition, but Black spiritual music does, primarily. But what I am aware of is I have studied different religious traditions form all over the world; I have friends who are devotees of many religious traditions, but what interests me is the thing you're talking about: What is common among them, as distinct as they are from one another, that allows people to be in a state of openness in community? What brings that about? There are a few things. One is intimacy in space: That you enter a place that has been charged with the intention of that kind of gathering. Number two: That there is some kind of meditation involved, whether that be prayer, literal meditation, listening to a text, or sitting in silence. And then, number three: Music!

[Laughter]

Daniel Alexander Jones: Music to move the spirit. And so, the "Afromystical" is actually a term that I coined. I had assumed it had been in use, and I looked to see whether it had been, and it had not. But I am happy to claim having used it in this way, which is, for me, that there is something linking all African diasporic cultural practice that has to do with opening up to the Numinous. That there is something mystical. And that can happen as [what is] called "the juke," which is the moment in the juke joint where everybody's been dancing and singing and maybe drinking a little something and doing what they're doing, and then the room will lift; there'll be this sense of transcendence.

I think anybody who has gone out dancing in a club, people who have been in religious service at church and people get happy, you've been with friends singing music, growing up listening to my mom and her friends singing folk music together, there's something that happens where it goes whoosh! and something else enters the room. So, I'm interested in that because, for me, that is the time where we listen more deeply, and we see more deeply, and we're less likely to know and we're more likely to be curious and, if you will, soften to what is actually happening in the present moment in the room with the people who are gathered with us. That is the Afromystical impulse, and my deep, deep hope always has been to create that in my work. I've been more or less successful with given projects, but it's always on my mind.



EDGE: Is it usually the case, as Jomama is running through her set, that the room lifts in that way?

Daniel Alexander Jones: It is, but it's never in the same place twice. Never!

EDGE: Like lighting.

Daniel Alexander Jones: Yeah, and so that makes it, and it makes me, a little difficult, sometimes. with more traditional theater processes, because we rehearse not by running the show — we rehearse by running the framework. You cannot run the show as a rehearsal until the audience is there. They have to be in the room. Our job is to get our songs tight, we get our lighting cues tight, but I have found most of the time the folks who are working the sound and the lights are excited about it. They aren't there just to put a button. They have to actually be in the show, riding it and being able to be responsible, because something may take ten minutes that took two minutes the night before or vice versa, or there might be an epiphany where something happens in the room and Jomama might need to go and speak with somebody in the audience, and something's happening there, and the room has to follow it. So we rehearse the What Ifs, to a degree; we're like, "If this happens, then she's gonna do this." But we don't know what the content will be. And that, I love! I think it's also great for the audience because they know what they are coming to see is happening that night and only that night.

EDGE: You touched on this earlier, but this really is a terrifying time for anyone who's not white, straight, cisgender, male, and doesn't belong to a very narrow stripe of evangelical faith. When you're interacting with the room, what are you picking up on and working with? Are audiences resigned? Are they angry? Determined? Frustrated? Hopeful?

Daniel Alexander Jones: All of those things show up. One of the songs that comes toward the end is called "See Things As They Are," and it is a song that says until we do that, we can't see what we need to fix or address. But by doing that, you also afford yourself a measure of resource — of connection — and, if you will, of power. And nothing about domination, but energy to be able to move. The stories that Jomama tells there's definitely humor in that, and I would say there is always a lot of laughter in the room, even if we're looking at very difficult things. But the power that comes out of it is, I think, reminding ourselves of who we are and who we come from, and that we are not alone. If we broaden the lens beyond our individual struggles, the struggle of our group, and also beyond our own lifetime and consider the traditions and lineage of the people that we come from, we connect to wisdom and to energy that I think reactive fear prevents us from accessing.

Unfortunately, the right-wing is masterful at triggering and rekindling that kind of immediate fear response, and there is certainly no lack of it on any given day. My experience in the room is that it's this moment where we get to listen to one another and maybe listen, if you will, to the ancestral wisdom as we consider what we are doing now.



EDGE: At the end of the night, what do you want your audience to take home with them from their time with Jomama?

Daniel Alexander Jones: I'll say first that, obviously it's going to be so specific for each person, and no everybody is moved lifted. Some people are brought to a place that's very hard. Some people don't get on the ship — and that's true of any show, which is fine. But I'm hoping that when people leave they will remember that they have the ability to choose how they respond to any of the challenges that they face. We cannot control the larger conditions — we cannot. But we can respond to them with the authority of our deep knowing, our deep wisdom.

The thing I often go back to is this idea of the flattening of experience... especially nowadays, with the impact of social media, the impact of this kind of, like, quick back and forth discursive thing, an absolute inability to have a long conversation, which has a lot to do with how we have conversations now. We have conversations by tweet and by post. It's a lot of speaking at one another versus having a real conversation. There's a reason why the most generative and peaceful experiences with regard to civic pace — I'm thinking a lot about the civil rights movement, I'm thinking a lot about alternative learning spaces — there's a reason why we need so much time: Because people have to talk, and people have to listen, and people have to sit with one another and they have to sit with their own thoughts, and they have to be patient. We're in a very impatient time, a very fast time. I'm hoping that when people leave "Black Light" they're going to maybe re-sacralize the idea of considering what you have to consider in order to choose.

EDGE: So, there's hope for us yet.

Daniel Alexander Jones: I hope so, but I also love what this incredible environmental activist, Greta Thunberg, has said: "Keep your hope. I want action!" I think a lot about that. As I mentioned, Jomama kind of had a "comeback" around the time of the Obama administration, and we all were so riled up about hope and then we hit some very harsh realities. I'm curious about what will it take... and I actually see the stirrings of this — more than the stirrings, I see evidence of this wherever I've traveled, in various communities, that there is something else brewing in the country that is not about hope, but it is about an action, a restorative action. A movement toward justice. I just don't think it looks like it's ever looked before, and so it can get lost in the mix. But I think this is a time of great potential. It may not yet be visible in the way that the terror is!

One other quick thing I'd love to share with you is that Jomama first came to Boston to be part of the Theater Offensive's theater festival in 1996. It's really exciting to be able to come back to Boston, because it's one of the first places she toured to, way back in the day. I'm really excited to have this first experience with A.R.T., and also we've been in touch with folks at the Theater Offensive, which was such an incredible artistic home to me when I was a young artist. But I am very curious and excited to bring this conversation to Boston and to the surrounding community. It's really going to be an adventure.


"Black Light" runs at The American Repertory Theater's Club Oberon in Harvard Square Sept. 19 — 29. For tickets and more information, click here.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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