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Professor Explores Possibilities of Identity Through Live Performance

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If you visit the Fordham Theatre webpage, you will find classes with titles such as acting; theater history; flying solo; and young, gifted and black, all offered by Daniel Alexander Jones.

And indeed, if you sign up for these classes, Jones, a member of the faculty since 2008, will artfully guide you through your paces in these aspects of stagecraft.

If, however, you visited the Connelly Theater, Joe’s Pub, or any of the myriad theaters where Jones has performed over the last decade, you’d have encountered a very different person: Jomama Jones.

Since her debut in 2011, Jomama, a radiant soul diva with her own distinct backstory and career, has been a vehicle for Jones to explore profound questions of race and gender. In 2011, the New York Times described Jomama’s performance as “glowing, making it hard not to surrender to this sequin-encrusted earth mother’s soulful embrace.” In 2015, Jones won a Doris Duke Artist Award, which featured a $225,000 unrestricted, multiyear grant, and this April, he was honored with a Guggenheim Fellowship.

In addition to critically acclaimed performance pieces such as Black Light, which he performed at the Public Theater and Greenwich House Theatre, and Duat which he performed at Soho Rep, Jones has also produced plays such as Phoenix Fabrik, Bel Canto, Ambient Love Rites, and Earthbirths, Jazz and Raven’s Wings, and five albums of original songs.

So what has Jomama been up to these days? In a new podcast, Fordham News tracked Daniel down to find out.

And in a bonus track, Jones explains what the term Afromystical means, and why it’s so important to understanding “Jomama Jones.”

Full transcription below

Patrick Verel: If you visit the Fordham Theater Program’s webpage, you’ll find classes with titles such as acting, theater history, flying solo, and young, gifted and black, all offered by one Daniel Alexander Jones. And indeed, if you sign up for these classes, Jones, a member of the faculty since 2008, will artfully guide you through your paces in these aspects of stagecraft. If however, you visited the Connolly Theater, Joe’s Pub, or any of the myriad theaters where Jones has performed over the last decade, you’d have encountered a very different person, Jomama Jones.

Since her debut in 2011, Jomama, a radiant soul diva with her own distinct backstory and career, has been a vehicle for Jones to explore profound questions of race and gender. In 2011 the New York Times described Jomama’s performance as quote, “Glowing, making it hard not to surrender to the sequin encrusted earth mothers soulful embrace.” And in 2015 Jones won a Doris Duke artist award, which featured a $225,000 unrestricted, multi-year grant.

So what has Jomama been up to these days? Fordham News tracked down Daniel to find out.

So when we met in 2013 you told me, and I quote, “I think terror and art go hand in hand. If you’re not scared, you’re not doing it right.” So 2019 must be a phenomenal time to make art, right?

Daniel Alexander Jones: Yes, indeed.

PV: Tell me about it. How is it making art in 2019?

DAJ: Yeah, well that that idea of fear and its relationship to creating is an important one in that. I think it’s always important to feel what I call a quickening. Like when your heart races a little bit fast. There are a lot of states of mind and states of being that can bring us to that place. Love can bring us to that place. Curiosity can bring us to that place. Fear can bring us to that place. But all of it is for me about getting beyond your comfort zone. The habits that you have, the ways that you are accustomed to doing things. And when you move past that and you get into that place where you get a little bit afraid, your instincts kick in in a different way. And I think you start to see things with more acuity and you start to listen with more specificity. And that means you’re paying attention. And if there has ever been a time in my adult life in the United States of America where we need to be paying attention, it’s now.

Using the arts to explore possibility is a real honor, but it’s also one of the most powerful places to be working because it is about accessing the imagination. And if we cannot imagine what comes next, we can’t manifest what comes next.

PV: Talk to me about Waves, which I understand is a book you’re working on. It’s a book of creative nonfiction and you’re doing live readings of now.

DAJ: For the last three summers I’ve been dedicating my time to crafting this manuscript. I finished it in late August and gave it to my editor who just gave me back my manuscript. So the remainder of this year is dedicated to getting back in there and refining it. But I set out to write and collect the work that I had done for theater performance, techs, plays, which largely had not been published. And a number of friends and colleagues who said, “Yo, you got to publish your stuff.” And I said, “All right, I’ll sit down and I’ll do this.” And as I looked at the different work that I’ve made over the last 25 years, I said, anybody coming to this work not having seen it firsthand or not knowing me, would not probably be able to put it in a context because it’s kind of all over the place, in a way that I’m happy with, but it taps into a number of different ways of making work and different styles.

So I said, let me write a little contextual essay so that it’ll frame this work. And when I sat down to write that essay, that essay exploded into its own project. What I recognized was that I had a deep need to write about lineage. To write about the artistic traditions out of which my own work comes, in which I participate, hopefully which I extend, and which for sure here at Fordham forms the basis of what I teach.

So that meant that I was writing this kind of hybrid of memoir stories about and kind of essays about the mentors that I had in the arts, most of whom were pretty extraordinary black women who came out of either or both the avant garde black American theater tradition and or queer theater traditions. And then also to write about what it meant to integrate the lessons that they taught me into everyday life and everyday practice.

PV: Who’s one that you would think would be good to mention for this?

DAJ: Yeah. I will mention one who actually, it’s very interesting, her name was Dr. Constance Berkeley. Dr. Berkeley was one of my professors in undergrad when I went to Vassar College. I write at length about her and the many lessons she taught me, and particularly about her ability to help me understand better what it means that we live in a society that is so deeply informed by racism, classism, a kind of cultural imperialism that erases the truths of all of our distinctions as human beings. And that’s everybody in the society. And what it means to engage that means that you have to become an extraordinary observer, an extraordinary listener, and someone who can ask really good questions. Because if you make a space where you ask the right kinds of questions, people can reveal the complexity and the nuance of who they are outside of these very rigid, binary and hierarchical systems.

Her argument was everybody is so much more than the categories that they were reduced to. Everybody. And it is our work to take the time and the energy to see one another and to be with one another in that nuanced way. It’s harder. It takes more courage, and it takes more time. And especially in a society where everything moves at such a clip and our assumptions become our certainties and those certainties become things that are a part of that comfort zone I was talking about. The way we can navigate the world, certain of who does this, what that is. You can’t be in the arts, I don’t think, and be true to the work if you’re not willing to engage uncertainty and discomfort and the unknown.

PV: Have you visited many places that might be a little more resistant to this kind of performance?

DAJ: Absolutely. Yeah, and I think that’s actually a very big part of what’s important about making this kind of work. With touring Jomama, we’ve had a number of experiences where we’ve been places that had never experienced anything like Jo and have maybe not experienced a show like a show that I make and there’s been a lot of power in that for all involved.

I’m thinking of one time in particular we brought one of the shows to rural Minnesota, to this town that was definitely the red part of the state. I think a lot of folks who came to the show had seen the poster and they thought Jomama was real, which she is, but they didn’t understand that there was a male identified person portraying this person. And it was intense. And you could see there was a moment of, oh my God. And some people had brought their children. There was a lot of, oh my goodness. And then on top of that, the kinds of things I was talking about were very challenging. What happened was that people stayed the course.

And I think because of what I was mentioning, that I’m really interested in the encounter, the experience of being in the space together. And as Dr. Berkeley taught me, I really want to see who you are and I want you to see who we are and be in the space together. There’s not a trick and I’m not here to attack or shame you. I’m here to be. To talk about these ideas. And my ideas may confront you. I may confront you, you may confront me. But if we can stay in the heat with one another, what might be possible? Because the typical thing to have happen is you get into those highly charged situations and people decamp to their certainty. And this I deal with as a professor all the time. It’s like how do you have a dialogue in a classroom where people’s ideas are so fixed? How do you have a conversation?

PV: Right. So in a way you actually bring your teaching experience to the stage.

DAJ: And vice versa.

PV: And vice versa.

DAJ: 100%. 100%.

PV: Now, you’ve made it clear, now that we’re talking about Jomama, that it’s not a drag act. She’s another side of you that’s every bit as real as Daniel. Was it hard to make that switch the first time?

DAJ: Mm-hmm. For me it wasn’t because the way that she came through, and the first time she actually came through for me it was in 1995 so it was, I was working on my very first full length performance piece. She appeared in a way that was very different than a character that I created. I’ve written dozens of characters in different pieces and performed them, but that wasn’t what this was. So for me it felt more like a kind of channeling, being a vessel for this energy, which led me to number of different traditions. There are spiritual traditions where you’d become a vessel for an energy that is outside of who you are. There are traditions of performance, masked theater traditions in particular that I’m thinking about in in Asia and Africa where the mask, the external identity has a story, has information, has a particular set of characteristics and you as the performer actually surrender yourself to that energy. You take it on and it moves through you, it takes over your body, it moves your body in a particular way. Very often there are dances or songs that the mask knows that come through your body. And that is a valid and millennia old way of working.

The place that can be difficult I think is in how people view what I’m doing. It’s much easier to say it’s a drag act. It’s more complicated to talk about it in this way because it means opening up a different set of questions about what performance is and what identity is. I really don’t claim authorship of Jomama Jones, which is an odd thing to say as a playwright and a creator. I claim that I’m in a relationship with this energy and I create the circumstances. It’s kind of like building a melodic structure or a chord structure for a song, but the song when you play it live is always different every time.

In the jazz tradition, Betty Carter said one time something, she said, “It’s not about the melody, it’s about something else, the song.” So we often know a song by humming the melody. We’re like, oh, this is a song I know and I might hum, but the song is actually bigger than that. It has to do with the interpretation. It has to do with the way that the musicians approach it on that particular day and the epiphanies that lie between the notes. And that’s my work on Jomama, is I can give you a frame, but when I’m letting her through, she’s going to do what she’s going to do. And I’m not authoring that in a conscious way.

Now someone may come and say, “Well, that’s a subconscious thing. You’re still doing it. You’re still Daniel.” Fine. You can say that. But I choose very consciously to view it as part of I think a very ancient way of working. And I’m interested always in a more practical way, PV, in the idea that there are many people inside of us. Many aspects to us. And what happens if we give ourselves more freedom to think about identity as a multiplicity and a process rather than a static and fixed location? That interests me tremendously. And I think it might actually be a balm for some of the difficulties we go through in our culture that increasingly seems to need a static, flattened identity in order to assimilate and process.

PV: Wow, this is so much more deeper on a psychological level than I even imagined.

DAJ: You know that’s how I roll. That’s why these people, they run out of my class.

PV: Meanwhile, when you mentioned a mask, the first thing that came to my mind was the Jim Carrey movie, The Mask, where he literally puts on the mask and then becomes—

DAJ: In the mask itself.

PV: The mask takes over and he takes it off and goes, “Whoa. What was that all about?”

DAJ: What was that all about? Yeah. Which is a really, that’s a very funny pop culture version of this thing that is thousands of years old. Which is amazing to think about that, and what does that ancient wisdom tell us? Because there were so many different cultures throughout the world that masked play was integral to their religious traditions.

PV: Yeah. So you’re picking up on a very, very old tradition here. Speaking of old traditions, you’re turning 50 in February. Can I say that?

DAJ: Now why you going to try to put all my business in the street? You can say that.

PV: Hey, I’m an old man now. I just turned 45.

DAJ: All right. That’s good. Young.

PV: I’m not that far behind.

DAJ: I’m your elder. Respect me.

PV: I’m not that far behind.

DAJ: I love it.

PV: Yeah. So you’ve obviously seen a lot of changes in, when it comes to attitudes about gender expression in this country. And I wonder, do you feel like you’ve changed as well?

DAJ: I have. And I’ve been so inspired by… One of the places I really feel always that I learn from my students. I know that’s a kind of clichĂ© thing that people say and they’re like, “Oh, I learn from them as much as they learn from me.” I’m like, I don’t know that that’s true. I think we have different ways of exchanging. But I’ve been heartened by their clarity. That they no longer wish to reiterate a very limited set of definitions about what identity is. And in regards to gender, that there’s just this steadfast refusal to accept this binary idea.

It’s been interesting because I’ve witnessed in my life the ways that a gender binary has been integral to keeping a lot of the oppressive systems that aren’t explicitly about gender in place. A lot of the power dynamics, a lot of the hierarchies that it slips in. And even if it’s not the thing that you see, if you dig, you’re going to find that binary at work. So I mentioned my book Waves that I’m working on, and I mentioned these mentors. And it is not lost on me that most all of the people who shaped me were feminists, womanist thinkers, particularly coming out of black feminisms. And black feminisms implicitly challenge ideas about flattened identity and challenge ideas about singular ways of being in the world, and a binary. They break all those things open. They demand that you think more rigorously and feel and be more rigorously.

So I’ve changed because I’m starting to experience things that I felt either only I was going through or a very small group of people were going through, I’m starting to see as being very much discussed in the public. So it’s been a very interesting experience to let go of a lot of that sense of isolation and say, “Oh, I’m not alone in my experience of gender,” which has always been a very fluid thing.

Now, I haven’t felt the need to define myself because I think I’m always a little bit suspicious of definition in general, but what I’m clear about is that I can look back at my work for 25 years, I can look back at my life for almost 50 years and say that this idea of ‘the many inside the one’ has always been true for me. That there’s a fluidity and there’s a curiosity in some ways. I think if I can make one other provocative statement that when we are with one another, we bring different things out of one another. Whether that’s a one-on-one conversation, like what we’re having right now, a classroom setting, a collaborative environment, making art, a city, a political party, a nation. We can go to any scale, but we bring different things out of each other. So I also think identity is not only about who you are within, but how you are without. How you are in configuration with other people. That you change in relationship, or different aspects of you are highlighted or suppressed in relationship to the people that you’re around.

PV: What’s next for Jomama?

DAJ: Well, I am currently working on the first stages of a brand new project that I’m building with the Public Theater and New York Live Arts as partners right now, and it is going to be a kind of ceremonial ritual performance project and I’m going to be working on it all year. In the spring we’ll be doing a sharing at New York Live Arts in early May of the first phase of this material, some portion of it. And Jomama is in it as a central figure, but there are a lot of other people who are involved. I just got done with this incredible workshop week with Josh Quat, who’s one of my musical collaborators, and then three extraordinary folks, Ebony Noelle Golden, Alexis Pauline Gums, and Shango Daria Wallace, who are all culture makers, leaders, activists. We came together this week and explored some of the first phases of the core questions of the show, and it blew my mind. So I’m buzzing with all this stuff and going to go sequester myself, rewrite my book, and write this new piece for the rest of the year.

PV: You’ve got a lot of work cut out for you.

DAJ: I do. I do. But thank you so much for chatting with me. I’m very happy to be part of your podcast.

PV: Thank you.

Bonus Track:

Patrick Verel: What does the term Afromystical mean, and why is it so important to understand you and Jomama?

Daniel Alexander Jones: One of the threads running through black American culture, and I would say you can make this observation of Afrodiasporic culture, period, is the relationship between cultural production and what you might call the divine or the numinous; the sense of the mystery of being and how close it is to our embodied everyday experience.

Zora Neale Hurston once talked about this principle called the juke, and the juke is like the juke joint. And we’ve all seen the juke joint in movies about the blues and you know, it’s the shack off in the woods or on the water where people go and they have their party, and they go and listen to the blues, and they get a little tipsy and they dance together. And what she says is in that space, an elevation will happen; that there’s something from the collective gathering and the movement with the music, and the collective energy of the people all dedicated to this kind of celebratory experience that will open up an experience of the life force that is larger than what you walk around with everyday.

And I think you can look at that and you can think about how that threads itself through black music. You can think about how it threads itself through dance, Alvin Ailey. You can think about how it threads itself through popular dance. You can think about how it threads itself through even the kinds of performative conversations and demonstrations and people’s own sense of beauty walking through the world. And then there’s a correlation in the black American sacred tradition in the church where people get the Holy ghost, right? Where you see the divine comes through. You may have seen it with gospel music that it lifts, and you get that shimmer; that vibration where all of a sudden, it feels like God is present, the divine is present, however you want to want to name that thing.

So, I’ve always been aware that what interests me is that meeting place between what we can never know; The universe, our ontology that is rooted in our sense of what cosmology is. That is the site where the work really, really happens. There’s a lift, there’s a change, there’s a transformation.

PV: Do you feel like you’ve been able to achieve that lift?

DAJ: I have. I have. And actually, Jomama has. Daniel does from time to time. But it’s part of the work, and it’s a long tradition. It’s not something I’m making up, but it’s something I participate in in my own way.

We had it recently when we did our show in Boston and there was this moment where the room, and it’s hard to describe if you’re not a performer, but there’s a kind of melting that happens that you can perceive if you will, when you’re presence of an audience. Performing live in the way that I do that involves some improvisation. Everybody in that room, you sense their energy, you sense their intelligence, you sense their perception. And you can feel almost like a circuit; what’s closed and what’s open, how the energy is moving through the room. And paying attention to it, there will be a moment if it does turn, there’s a moment where everybody knows that it turns, and all of a sudden, the circuit works in a different way.

And that thing, it happened, there was one particular show I can think of when we were in Boston that it happened, and I would say over half of the audience started to cry at the same time. It was phenomenal, and all of us who were making the show kind of looked at each other like, “Oh, it turned. The thing—” And it was dramatic because we didn’t expect that to happen quite in that way. But it said to me that there was a place where the individuals making up that audience, and then the collective experience of that audience connected with the subject matter of the piece which in this piece, had a lot to do with race and violence and conflict and the soul. And given what’s going on in the country, it’s like those things can be very hard to talk about in a public space. And there can be a resistance. And if that resistance flips, which is part of the technology of making a work, you know? It can be a tremendously liberating moment.

And again, what happens after when people leave the theater, I have no control over that as an artist, none whatsoever. But I can make an invitation to say to folks, what would happen if we sat with these ideas in these experiences together, and that we making the piece, will hold the room in such a way as not to leave you exposed in a way that’s cruel, in a way that tricks you. Because I think that’s a big part of it too. People don’t … Why would I show you something if you’re going to trick me?

PV: Right.

DAJ: And that’s not how I roll.

PV: Yeah.

 

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