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.
You talk about Jomama being a distillation of these figures that fascinated you as a kid, what does that mean in terms of how you created this "mask?" Was there a research phase for this show that helped you to build a vocabulary of ideas and voices and gestures that led to Jomama? Give me a sense of your process in creating this character.
With any piece there's a research component, which I love. And I think that's one of my favorite parts of making work, so that muscle has gotten really strong in my work. But this piece was interesting, and Jomama is interesting, because she actually comes from the most intimate place, which is my real love of this music and this culture. As a nerdy, not-quire-sure-if-I'm-queer, black, white, kid, I was always a crossroads person, I was always more than one thing. This music was the safest place for me and the place that I most aspired to—everybody from the bigger names like Diana Ross to Tina Turner, to maybe lesser-known names like Angela Bofill. Their artistry was about revealing something in the human spirit about resilience and about the ability to transmute difficulty into something else through song.
When it came time to do this work, part of it was having the courage to say, I actually just love this and I want to share my joy in this work. I had to trust that my research brain would be able to greet my seven year-old self, and my fourteen year-old self, and sit down with those parts of me and say, okay, I know you love it, but do you remember what they wore, do you remember what the chord structures are, do you remember what some of the cultural signifiers were?
I was a little bit of a pack-rat, so I'd saved a lot of my black music teen magazines. I read those, I read Jet magazine
, and I listened to all that music again. Which was such a trip. It wasn't a trip down memory lane, it was remembering that there was a whole, vibrant soul music culture before the crossover happened to pop music. The way I like to think about it is that Jomama's spine started to form vertebrae by vertebrae. But because it was so personal and so intimate it didn't feel like research in the way that maybe some of my other pieces have.
I like that you use the word resilience when talking about that soul music culture—it works on a superficial level, as the songs are often about resilience in a personal relationship, but it seems to work in the sense that they were resilient in a culture that was fighting against their existence, to a certain extent. Thinking about that personal and political resilience in the context of contemporary politics, particularly in light of the political parties right now and the rejection of Barack Obama and his politics, what does resilience mean for you now? You say this is a personal story, but it's reflected in both a past soul culture and the contemporary culture.
I'm so glad you mention the current political climate, because I think that's something that concerns Jomama. It's something that I've been thinking about a lot as we've been working on the piece. It's interesting because I feel there's been a marked shift from a kind of public culture of information and resistance that existed in that earlier period, to, I don't want to call it a blind cynicism, but I think there's a weariness in the culture because people are so disappointed in our institutions, in our government, and in rhetoric, period. As I think about why Jomama, why now, the resilience has to do with our willingness to be truly vulnerable with one another about our deepest wishes as human beings in our culture.
If the systems are failing us and our attempts to engage those systems democratically have disappointed us again and again and again, and the result is that there is this profound fatigue and profound sense of disillusionment, are we going to further participate in that sort of failure or do we risk reaching out to one another on a personal level to both share our desire, but also, if you will, risk what it would take to help one another achieve those desires for intimacy, for transparency, and for human connection? And I mean that on the most quotidian, the most intimate level. I think that's where the revolution really can be fed. Because I just think there's too much anger, too much cruelty, and too much self interest, which I think, for me, are more a reflection and symptoms of a larger sense of deep disillusionment.
I don't want to speak too generally, because it's not everybody, but I think a lot of young people, especially, are so deeply desirous of being connected to one another but feel afraid of reaching out. And I feel like Jomama is a figure that not only reaches out, but invites you to be open. She has a song, on the first CD we did, called "Open" and the first lyric says, "If you need a hand to hold, first offer your hand to someone else." Which can seem very kumbaya, but what happens if you try it, what happens if you actually try to do something for someone else. And maybe it's not going to be on this grand political scale right now, but it can be that we might be able to continue to build some kind of infrastructure that's really about, if you will, kindness and openness. That, to me, is what the resilience is about.
Staying on that topic of openness and change in the context of this show and your own experience as a young, interracial, queer kid in the 70s and 80s, and then becoming an adult through the whole era of political correctness, I can't help but think about how we're in a moment where we need to take some big next steps in terms of how we, as a culture, acknowledge differences. What's your perspective on that; how is this show exploring some of those ideas?
In my work in general, I feel that, absolutely, it is my job, it is my community of artist's job, to make new language. I hesitate when I use the word queer or black or white or whatever. I feel it's like when a plane gets struck by lightening. I was in a plane once that got struck by lightening and they were like, oh we're fine, and they landed the plane and everybody got off the plane.
Can you tell, when a plane gets struck by lightening?
Oh yeah, everything blinks and you're like, whoa. But they're all saying, it's fine, it's fine. As soon as we get off the plane you hear them saying, we're taking it out of service and they all realize that the plane doesn't work right anymore, it's not fine. And I feel like this language that we're using has been struck by lightening so many times that it has meaning and implications far beyond any individual's intentions when using it. And we have the opportunity to find new ways to express that. I think about all those extraordinary writers—I've been rereading Audre Lorde recently—who carved language out to save lives, to save their own lives, to build bridges. And it worked, in large measure. But there's also, for me, politically, a desire that the differences that we understand, that we honor and that we need to acknowledge, do not become bulwarks against intimacy.
I want more than anything, and I think, again, it's growing up as a child of people who were in the social movement of the 1960s, that I don't want to be separate from other people, that's not my desire, and it's not my desire to in a hierarchy with other people. My desire is to break those things down because we have large crises that we need to attend to and we can't do that if we're one-upping one another or we're intractably separated from one another. So, I feel like part of what Jomama is doing, and I don't know how to phrase this other than to say, I think that when people see her on the postcard or they hear about the show, there are a set of assumptions that they will bring with them into the theater. It is my hope that all of those assumptions are overturned by the time they leave the theater and that there's a different kind of awareness that comes, and to understand that even the assumptions may be a false reading of the people that they're built on. A lot of those artists that I mentioned had this same agenda—how do we make the fullest, most resonant, freest human beings possible through our art. That desire met an industry, a business, and, as you're saying, a very repressive atmosphere. They fought a valiant fight, and in many sense succeeded. But if I can push the stone along a little bit, I'm going to push it along.
I think it's so interesting that you're talking about using the icon of the "soul diva," which is a very attractive icon to a lot of people, to flip some people's assumptions and address some of the divisions created by identity. How does Jomama manage to flip those assumptions? What is her method?
I think it's really a play—we get to play, she gets to play—literally play music, play the play of the thing, and invite people into an atmosphere that, for tonight, for this hour and a half when you come, lets you leave that over there, just for a little while. We'll give you a coat check for it, or whatever, but for right now, what happens if we talk about these things, if we experience these emotions? And it's not to obliterate that history, of course, but it is to make you aware that there's already a big transformation at work. That's what I kind of love about it, from Jump Street
it's a giant mask, the whole thing is. In the time we've played, some very interesting things have happened.
Give me a couple examples.
There is one song that we do called "Show Pony," which is a very audience-interactive thing, about the kinds of people that you might date. The idea is, don't put a show pony on a workhorse job. We do a thing in the audience where we ask people to be part of that. And it's like the Price is Right
or something. People get so excited, yelling things, talking to perfect strangers. Again, having that permission to maybe do the things in a theater space that you might do in your own house or with your friends.
The other thing that's been so interesting, because people don't know who Jomama is, is that they react to her like they're seeing a superstar. It's insane. I couldn't have imagined it. People start screaming, asking for autographs, all kinds of stuff. Something about her is very real, which is what I was saying before. She doesn't feel like a character to me, she feels like an entity, and I'm not gonna get in the way of it. I'm also working with just extraordinary collaborators.
Right, your back-up singers, the Sweet Peaches.
Yeah. Two of them are going to be with us for this run, Helga Davids and Sonja Perryman. And then Bobby Halvorson, my main collaborator. These are just people I love, who are also, in their own work, so committed to making art in really generous communities and sharing work that has aesthetic rigor but is also accessible.
Bobby, when we met, was like 21 years old, a California boy, straight guy, very laid back kid. And here I am, this hyper, gesticulating, avant-garde, multi-identity guy from the East Coast. We are the last two people that you would ever expect to be in a room together, let alone working together in the way that we've worked together. But I feel like Jomama brought us together. And not only did we work together, but we worked in the most delicious collaboration of my life. It's also been, to me, as an artist and a person, a reminder to always look beyond all of the surfaces. Even though I think I'm so forward-thinking, I had to say wait a minute, this 20-something California boy has the other half of this puzzle and you have to recognize that and trust it. And it's been a lesson to remind me that if we can risk that moment, that single moment of vulnerability with another person, and in this case it's artist-to-artist, there's a world there. And I have just loved working with him.
The other thing you feel in this show is how much love and respect everybody has for each other, and the fact that we respect that people came to see it. We want to give them something that feels good. They came out of a cold winter's night, we're going to hopefully make them feel warm.
(photo credit: Craig Bailey)