There are a number of tried and true methods for keeping warm on a cold, windy, winter night in New York. But if you're looking for something new you might try spending an evening at Soho Rep
with Jomama Jones
, a former soul diva, just back from her long sojourn in Europe, launching her comeback tour and celebrating the release of her new album. Or so the story goes, according to Daniel Alexander Jones, the interdisciplinary performance artist who created and performs as Jomama. I spoke by phone with Daniel about how and why he created this larger-than-life persona and what she has to say about her past and her present.
The L: First of all, I want to ask why you chose to build such a complete persona for this show, one that has a life in the world outside of the frame of each performance. I half-expected that you would want to conduct this interview as Jomama Jones instead of Daniel Alexander Jones.
Daniel Alexander Jones:
I think there are a couple short answers to that question. The first is that she really is an entity unto herself. I really feel when I'm working that I channel her. There's very little of Daniel that stays in the mix. It's a very interesting thing because I feel like my own artist's brain is really good at setting all the armature for her and making sure the notes are correct, making sure the spacing is correct, but when the performance happens, I go away and she comes, and the energy that is her comes complete.
The other thing is that I feel like she's able to talk about and sing about things that are very important to me, but her personality is the kind of personality that allows you to hear conversation about loss, politics, culture, without it feeling like it's a hammer over your head. Like she's someone able to invite you in. And I think this show deals with some very serious themes but it feels really jubilant. I think she allows me to say some things directly that I couldn't say myself.
This is a character that came about for you in the 1990s. Tell me a little bit about her birth and evolution.
It was 1995 when I first performed her and that was when I was living in Minneapolis. At that time there was a really thriving performance art culture in the Twin Cities. As a young artist I was trying out different ways of expressing myself and Jomama came, again, like I said, she really came full force. I created a short piece with her and then put her as a character into a longer performance piece, Blood:Shock:Boogie
, which was an autobiographical piece talking about growing up in an interracial family in the late 70s-early 80s. She was the distillation of all of those extraordinary soul singers that I loved when I was growing up, mixed a little bit with how I might have imagined myself as a young person. She was, at that point, much more of a diva, much more dramatic, campy, and maybe had a little sharper teeth.
Then she went away. I performed her for a couple years and then I didn't perform her again. She was just not part of my imagination until a couple years ago when all of a sudden, and I often use the metaphor of a comet—kind of how it goes away and it comes back around—I felt like she came back around in my consciousness. And it was really full-force, it was like, okay, I'm back, and you're gonna do me now and everything else has got to go. So I said, okay, I won't fight.
It's interesting to me, this notion of Jomama coming to you complete, as you put it, but that she's also, in part, allowing you to sort through some of your experiences as a young person. It makes me wonder if there's a connection between your work on this show and traditional mask work in the theater, going back to the ancient Greeks. There's that ritual sense of giving yourself over to the mask. Do you feel like that's what's happening for you when you're performing as Jomama?
I really feel there's something holy about the practice of taking on a relationship with a persona. The mask, as you know, has its own ethic, its own DNA, and if you're playing a demon or you're playing a god, the mask has that in it. It's interesting; she is a lot like a mask to begin with because she comes when I'm working on her in the mirror.
As you're going into a kind of drag?
Absolutely. You're changing your features into the features of this other person. I think there are two parts of it: one is a surrender—that, weirdly, the ego has to totally give way. You have to say, okay, I'm going to give over to the impulses of this other energy and I'm not going to try to control it, and it might be me, it might be me going in very different directions than what I might intend, but I have to trust that it has its own truth. Then the other part of it is that I think it offers me as a performer, and I think it offers all of us, the opportunity to think about what the boundary is between our own skin and the skin of another. When I jump into another person, it's like something vibrates and I transform. And I think that act of transformation is so compelling. It's why we love actors, it's why we love masks—because they suggest to us, I might be able to change. These rigid ideas about myself or about somebody else really might be able to transform. I think there's great power in that and I think it suggests something about our human potential.
Frankly, I don't think there's a lot of encouragement for that kind of play. It's not "productive" and it may even be dangerous because it invites you to leave behind the rules, on some level. If I'm gonna talk about fear or loss or questions of identity that are very fraught, the mask gives me a way to see, if you will, the essence of that tension, the essence of that problem, as a kind of heightened principle. I can, by giving over to that mask, let all of it come out, without even worrying for a second about what I'm saying or what someone else might think of what I'm saying, because it's really raw.