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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.