Each night of Black Light, Daniel Alexander Jones straps on his platform heels, wears his assortment of sequined gowns and dons a beautiful wig, transforming into Jomama Jones. She’s an intimidating woman of contradictions who takes the audience on a musical journey that fuses everything from the Black American Freedom movement to Afromysticism and the musical influences of Prince, Sade, Diana Ross and Tina Turner.
“I think she represents a certain lineage of black American women who’ve embodied a deep sense of self-love and of community, along with real political acumen and bravery,” Jones says. “In terms of how they walk through the world and that energy, it’s been a thing that’s gotten me through many of the trials in my own life. And I think right now at this moment, in 2018, it’s a perspective that we really need to pay attention to.”
Jones spoke to us about the show — which is scheduled to run through December 31 — and his mission to use theater and music to help strangers come together as a community to see the world as it is, rather than how they would prefer it to be.
Rolling Stone: I know you’ve been performing as Jomama Jones for years and this is not meant as a drag performance, but watching you perform, I was fascinated and wondering: Why Jomama?
Daniel Alexander Jones: The questions that Jomama asks in the show are questions that are really rooted in a kind of long-standing inquiry into the nature of the contradictions in our country, in our culture, and a set of questions about how can we move forward individually or together.
I think of her, and I’ve described her very often, as an energy that I channel. Over the course of my career I’ve created a lot of different characters and written plays, but this feels very different. She first appeared to me in 1995 when I was in my mid-twenties, when I was working on a performance piece that looked at my neighborhood where I grew up, in a working-class city in Western Massachusetts called Springfield.
Saturday mornings, all of my friends would watch Soul Train, and I wanted to do a section that paid homage to that time. But I didn’t really want to impersonate a singer, like Diana Ross, so I wanted to do something and Jo came fully formed. She just kind of appeared. And with her came this whole backstory. I’m channeling her. It’s almost like she brings all of herself and her experience.
As I’m performing, there’s some aspect of the work that’s improvised, and I draw upon her impulses, so I’m not imposing what I say on her. She has a lot to say about the moment we’re in, and so that’s why I feel like she’s here now.
How do you navigate the minefields around the idea? Because there is a stereotype of the magical negro, the stereotype of the black woman who offers support and tears and comfort. Like Michelle Obama comforting a crying Kanye in the Childish Gambino video; there’s been controversy around that, which some people see as too much of a burden for black women.
Yeah, I don’t think that Jomama is offering comfort. I don’t think that’s what this is about for me. I’m actually interested in centering her and, by extension, honoring the centrality of these voices on their own terms, not so much as a teacher or a hand-holder or that kind of stereotypical Mammy figure.
She’s really here to serve you, but it’s that you are visiting with her and this show and, you know, when you come to somebody’s house, how are you raised to come into their house? How were you raised to engage with them? What are the ways that you respect somebody else’s opinion? I hope that’s the invitation here, but it’s certainly not that she’s coming to help. This is not about somebody doing somebody else’s labor, right? It’s not about turning to somebody else to do the work, but actually having to choose to do it yourself.
There is a history of male performers adopting other personas, but I got confused watching Black Light since it’s unclear if everything is fictional — or is it a mix of fiction and memoir?
It’s a wonderful question. The way that I would frame it is this that my hope always is that whatever I, Daniel, am doing is to get to the place where, you, the person coming to see the show, get to visit with Jomama. I was talking recently about this in terms of ancient performance traditions that are based either on mask work or a kind of religious ritual where you invite an energy or an entity — a consciousness and intelligence — into the room and you’re in a dialogue with it in a kind of oracular way.
These stories — while they are not based on my experience — are definitely part of the American experience and they are a text that, for whatever reason, moves through the persona of Jomama in a very clear way that feels, to me when I’m performing, like her memory. They ring as clear and as specifically as my own memories, and that feels very different than a kind of fiction that I’m creating. I’m not crafting it like I would be my other writing. I’m just telling you what she remembers and, in the moment, very spontaneously, she recalls these details.
I always want to be very careful to say that I actually really love and respect drag performance, and I understand that I have often been part of the conversations around it and the critique with regard to it — like who has agency and what is representation? So, it is not that I want to distance myself from drag for any reason other than to say that’s not what I feel like I’m doing, and other people can read it in the context of drag, which is fine to do.
I was thinking about this idea of the divine feminine, and I feel like you are trying to address the need for a feminine energy.
Oh my God, yes, a hundred-thousand percent. That’s exactly, for me, right, that it is about this divine feminine. Also, I always want to call into question for myself as a person and for everybody that I work with or interact with and even as a teacher, working with my students. What are the roots of the categories that we are navigating with one another around identity?… Which is one of the things that is so beautiful and heroic and powerful about the changes in language that are coming out of this moment in our history. Like, people are blowing that shit open, you know, and saying, “Wait a minute. What does it mean to be non-binary? What does it mean to be fluid? What does it mean to say that there are many within us — not just one.
Including Prince in your performance also seems to be related to that because, for so many people, he was always confusing, where he was on his sexual spectrum. How did looking at Prince from this teenage female perspective come about?
You know, when I was a teenager, we were in this kind of golden era of black culture and music. Every month, there would be this new incredible record and new stories and gossip about all these wonderful artists who were like a pantheon of gods for us as kids. Like, they were like the orishas or the Greek gods; they all had their own personalities. I was just talking today with some folks about the rivalry between Prince, Michael Jackson and Rick James about who’s better. I think Prince represented something, and it seemed like it could potentially be a space of freedom and individualism within the black community to go in very different kinds of directions. And there were questions about, “Should we be focused on politics? Should we be focused on making our money?” Should we be focused on everybody having the same party line and, dropping right into the middle of that, is Prince.
He was this walking set of contradictions and provocations; and I think to be a teenager at that time, and to look at Prince, was to say maybe everything that was on the table is under question. His virtuosity, his capacity to live so brashly and so boldly was a beautiful and challenging truth from this idea of the Freedom Movement: How free can we be right now? How big is the playground that we have? And I feel like he both excited and terrified me. He definitely did the same for a lot of us, and we really like the provocation of him right now.
You mentioned Diana Ross and I know people often mention Sade and Tina Turner when they are referring to Jomama, but I was also curious about Aretha Franklin’s influence since she recently died. Do you have any feelings toward her as an influence?
Well, I mean, I can’t be black in America and not love Aretha! It was interesting to me as a teenager because Aretha had a bit of a commercial comeback around that time. But my first introduction to her was through my parents, and she was connected to Saturday mornings when you would clean up your house. That was true of almost every family that I knew growing up.
When she passed away I said, “Wow, there’s a kind of bigger metaphor there.” She was the person that you went to when you needed to really look at the truth of what you were going through emotionally and “clean your house” on a spiritual level, too.
One thing that is true of a Aretha throughout her whole career is that she never compromised her core artistic integrity. She wouldn’t do anything that she didn’t believe in. Now that didn’t always fly with critics — that didn’t always make her the star of the day — but there was that core sense of she didn’t ever seem to do anything that was not true to who she was. When I look back as an adult, I recognize what the political impact of that was. I recognize the price she paid for doing that. It was a real testament, to look at the impact when she died and how many people spoke of her as this kind of freedom fighter, even though she may have just been living her life. But it was something about the way that she wouldn’t compromise, and I think maybe the thing when I look back at her, in addition to the impeccable artist, is that she stayed true to who she was.
Let’s talk about the songs that you wrote for the show. You’ve released a video for “To See Things as They Are.” Can you explain a little bit about the inspiration and message of it is?
This was a very recent composition, and Josh Quat, who’s my guitarist, and I had written the new album for Jomama over the summer, and this song was the one that just kind of like burst forth from that process. What it’s rooted in for me is understanding how difficult it is to find any measure of objectivity at this moment in a political maelstrom. We’re in a hot mess right now, and one of the things that I encounter in the different circles that I walk in is that, very often, the conversations are motivated by what we would prefer that it was; what we don’t want it to be. But what it actually is very hard to arrive at — because it’s so charged and there’s so much pain and so much anger — is to look at things as they are. The song is really rooted in the idea that if, at any moment where you’re facing difficulty in your life, if you can really take that deep breath and look at it as it actually is.…
It is a challenge to the ego. It’s a challenge to your ability to change the thing in the moment. It gives you a platform to be able to think about what you can begin doing to move it in the future. But right now, if there has ever been a moment where I feel like the culture needs to take a stark look at itself, it’s now.
What about your collaboration with your backup singers and the band?
Everybody who’s been part of this project is kind of drawn to the project. They’re, like, magnetized to it. Every one of my band members has opened up some aspect of what this show is as a whole. We are all equal collaborators in my mind’s eye. There’s certainly an artistic rigor, but they also are very humble people. I don’t think of any work in the theater as ego-less, but I think you can have an ego that is is yoked to humility and to a work ethic and that’s what everybody has. They really believe in this project because they believe in what it means to be in the room with everybody every night. So on a very practical level, they’ve come in and they’ve opened this music up and, even today, we were changing arrangements and opening it up to make it sing even more, because they always hear things; and I try to make sure that this is a process that can keep growing and be alive, and that they are an integral part of that unfolding there. They’re definitely not session players. They are collaborators.
Obviously, Jomama’s dispensing this sort of spiritual wisdom or these cosmic insights, but I got a little nervous sometimes when it felt like, “OK, are we going to go into some sort of church?” I think it’s intentional. I mean, we’re in theater and live theater always does have some sort of experience like that, but then the idea of “bearing witness” and being a witness — which comes up in the show — and even us holding hands. I just wondered about transforming the space of live theater into a sort of church-like space. Is that is that part of the intention?
Yes, someone described the piece as “church for people who don’t like church.” What I think is interesting for me is the discomfort that you felt. It feels like a very important thing to engage. I would underscore I am not part of a Judeo-Christian religious tradition; that’s not my point. But what interests me is understanding where have the boundaries been drawn around our willingness to sit with others and ask these kinds of questions around cosmology, around purpose? Where have we drawn in the lines with one another around what is an appropriate intimacy with a stranger in a space like this?
And you did get consent first!
Yeah, exactly! You know, not to go to pop-psych on it, but I think about the work that’s been so popular lately, from writers like Brené Brown and others. There’s a lot of this research into the nature of vulnerability, and I’m interested always in an artist offering space for people to practice what it means to be vulnerable with one another. This space, hopefully, is a space where we can do that around these charged questions.
I grew up with parents who worked in community centers, so the idea of the importance of being in an intimate relationship with a community has always been in my DNA. I think that one of the biggest things missing right now is that we, by and large, don’t have those kinds of public spaces where we can gather and deal with our stuff together. We deal independently; we cast our opinions; we fight with each other online and on social media. But where’s the place where we can gather and sit with our stuff together? That’s where theater for me comes in — that’s its purpose on so many levels.