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Daniel Alexander Jones channels soulful soothsayer Jomama Jones in the new musical Black Light
"What if I told you…I've seen the future? What if I told you…I'm from the future?" intones Jomama Jones, the theatrical alter ego of writer-performer Daniel Alexander Jones, in the opening moments of Black Light, which debuted at Joe's Pub but is transferring to the Barrow Street Theatre. However, much of what follows is actually a journey to the past. Sharing stories of her childhood visits to family members down South and teenage drama with her school friends up North, Jomama ties together what was and what will be because, as she explains, humanity is currently at "the crossroads."
According to Jones, who treats Jomama as her own entity (he calls himself her cousin and offstage representative), Black Light was created in response to the end of Barack Obama's presidency and the election of Donald Trump. "When I think about what it meant to have, even symbolically, this national presence of a certain kind of blackness, and to know that was going to be replaced with this other thing, yet to feel like black culture is still the root of our country on so many levels -- that became a crossroads," he explains.
Jones came up with Jomama about 20 years ago, and since her 2009 "comeback," she has performed her humorous, inspirational, and ever-changing musical act in venues across the U.S. "She was originally very much the diva," Jones admits. "It was the mid-'90s -- there was a certain kind of fabulousness in music, in pop culture, in black culture especially. And then over the years, especially during the last several years, I've found that she has matured so profoundly. She's someone who's lived through a lot of things and has some wisdom to share, but she's still a fun person to have around."
Given her appearance -- very tall, golden brown, and draped in sequins -- one might be tempted to classify Jomama as a RuPaul-style drag queen. However, Jomama's performances showcase songs over style. "It starts with the music," Jones says. "It's definitely about a certain level of virtuosity in the collective of people I'm working with. As Daniel, I wrote these really saturated, poetic plays. But Jomama is so much about the event, the sound, and the direct experience." Jones names jazz singers Betty Carter, Abbey Lincoln, and Nancy Wilson as influences. "I really scrutinized their phrasing."
Black Light is focused on the Civil Rights era, with Jomama taking us back to the '60s and '70s, describing her relationships with an elderly aunt, a singular teacher, and a high-school frenemy who shared her love of Prince. Her songs, co-written by a diverse roster of composers, incorporate rock, pop, soul, and gospel. There's no fourth wall: Jomama speaks directly to the audience and encourages spectators to connect by asking strangers to hold one another's hands. "One of the things that's important to me in my work is to try to make a space for being able to see each other," Jones says. "I think that's been eroded from our society in a lot of ways. Where has the civic space where we can be in disagreement but be in the room with one another gone?"
So an evening at the crossroads with Jomama ends up being much more than a concert; it's also a history lesson, a therapy session, and a divination -- with many fabulous costume changes. "I really do feel like she visits me," Jones says of Jomama. "The show feels a bit more like a ritual than it does a performance. That's the part that I feel like she's got on lock, but Daniel..." He pauses, then laughs. "I don't know if he could do that."
To read about a student's experience at Black Light, check out this post on TDF's sister site SEEN.
Regina Robbins is a writer, director, native New Yorker, and Jeopardy! champion. She has worked with several NYC-based theatre companies and is currently a Core Company Member with Everyday Inferno Theatre.
Top image: Vuyo Sotashe, Daniel Alexander Jones as Jomama Jones, and Trevor Bachman in Black Light. Photos by Joan Marcus.
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