I had the opportunity to meet Daniel Alexander Jones many, many years ago while we were both teaching artists at CenterStage in Baltimore. Daniel was a thoughtful playwright, educator, and activist; we were like-minded spirits and quickly connected. Fast-forward a decade and a half later, he’s now a tenuredProfessor of Theatre at Fordham University.
In addition to his teaching gig, Daniel is also a brilliant performance artist. We reconnected in 2011 while he was in preparation for his cousin's (wink, wink) show, Radiate, in New York City. The creation of his fictional cousin, Jomama Jones, a dynamic stage performer in the likeness of Diana Ross, Donna Summer, and Nona Hendryx, has resulted in performances heralded by The New York Times, The New Yorker and The Village Voiceto name a few. Jomama’s performances are a combination of poetry, storytelling, song, and political and social commentary. Her rock-pop-folk –soulful music coupled with her reflections on her time abroad, musings on the human condition, elegant humor, and genuine warmth penetrates the hearts of her audiences’ and are akin to attending a spiritual revival.
Yes, I’m a fan. Jomama Jones is real and she will fill your heart with love.
Below is a recent conversation with Daniel and Jomama in Central Park. I encourage you to read thoughtfully as this is a lesson in a holistic view of the creation of character and invites you into the depth of one’s creative process.
Now, I know Daniel and Jomama are related but when did the two of you first meet?
DAJ: In 1995, I was working on what would become my first full-length performance - Blood:Shock:Boogie an autobiographical, comic book piece that looked at my childhood. I referencedSaturday morning Soul Train. While working on that section, this figure came raging into being - Jomama Jones. In the piece, she was receiving a Lifetime Achievement award on Soul Train from Don Cornelius and when she comes out to accept the award it doesn’t go very well because she is adamant that while she’s receiving this Lifetime Achievement Award that it’s not the end of her career. When performing Jomama then, I found that her energy was almost bigger than the world of that piece.
Was this a one-person show?
DAJ: It was, but nothing I ever do is only one person so I ended up having two other people with me. Most of the work I do is performance art.
Define performance art for you?
DAJ: The site of the work is the actual experience of performing it and of witnessing it as an audience member. There is a degree of spontaneity and improvisation in the making and the doing of it. The components of text, image, gesture or choreography, and music are meant to have fullest realization in the moment they come together in the act of performance. Whereas, I would say that it’s slightly different than traditional theater, where many of the things have been locked before they meet an audience.
I’ve known Daniel in many different settings - as a director, an educator, and playwright. He seems more structured in his process and Jomama seems much more improvisational in nature. And when she’s performing, she is fully realized.
DAJ: I observe that there is a ‘twin-ing.’ I don’t want to call it a duality because I don’t think there is an opposition there. It’s not a split of one person, there are two beings. And with that comes a clarity about Jomama’s own power; her ability to choose and also to respond to experiences with curiosity, with real joy and, this word continues to come up - certainty. What I note of myself is that I have experienced a great deal of static in my journey. Whether that is [through] institutional or cultural models of art making and ways of collaborating. She does not seem to care about the limitations that they would suggest.
She gives you, Daniel, a freedom.
DAJ: I don’t know if she gives me freedom. She has her own freedom. I think I’m learning from her and she feels far more actualized than I do to myself.
What always strikes me, is that you, Daniel, have all of this information about divas in music, socio-cultural-economic-political history - that seems to be reinterpreted and transformed through Jomama.
DAJ: What I have to delineate here, is that I am a channel for that to come through. Since I was very little, I’ve been interested in these things. From who played the percussion on the B-side of a certain album to the larger questions about (those divas’) navigating an identity during the civil rights movement. But I am not “doing it” when [Jomama’s] there. That’s the thing that is hard to describe.
Now, that is a trip.
DAJ: It is a trip but it’s the truth. I can’t manufacture things that she would say. I think of the language of jazz that has threaded itself through my career in terms of how I make art. There is a space in jazz called the break, where you go beyond the edge of what is known in the music. When you are out of the bounds of the melody and the extact structure, there is a place where you travel that depends upon, one foot being firmly grounded in what you know [in the music] and the other elsewhere. So what may very well be true is that, if I am vessel, I am also player. So this body (pointing to himself) is the instrument, my aesthetic and sensibility, my historical knowledge; but by golly, I’m not actually the thing that’s being played. She is the entity that is working itself out through me at this given time and I’m honored to be that.
I understand that. While Daniel and Jomama may inhabit the same in body, they are different in spirit and mind. And who’s writing the songs?
DAJ: Jomama with [Musical Director] Bobby Halvorson. I do participate. We made a new record, “Flowering.”
I’m going to ask a simplistic question: Is this drag?
DAJ: My experience with Jomama is that while it’s passing or shifting along the gender performance spectrum, Daniel goes away. There is a physical part that I feel recedes to as a kind of witness to the whole experience. I’m merely, attempting to get out of the way so she can do what she needs to be doing. So, the difficulty sometimes in explaining this is that they see a ‘man’…
They see your body…
DAJ: …my body. They hear mydeep voice. What has been interesting in my experience is that people who come assuming it’s going to be “drag” that by the time we’re in the second song, they’re like ‘oh, that’s not what this is.’ Some people have been disappointed, because they came to see the "sassy, black drag queen” and then they meet Jomama who is not that. But most people are pleasantly surprised…they go past that identity moment…
Well, then they begin to really listen.
DAJ: They listen to what she’s saying.
So, Jomama…what are you doing? At its base, you are a singer and a performer. And you tell stories but I’ve always felt there is more there.
JJ: What I would hope that I am doing, is the same thing the sun is doing right now reminding us of what is possible and is what is already in us waiting to be fed. Waiting to bloom. Sometimes it will be a song. Sometimes it will be a performance. Sometimes it will be, as we are having now, a conversation. Sometimes it may be something simple as a look that I share with a stranger. Or as I would like to think of strangers, friends whose names I do not yet know. But it is a deeper work.
Do you think Daniel tries too hard [to be an artist]?
JJ: Yes. It’s exhausting which is why I keep my contact with him limited. But he’s very near the end of this cycle. It is frustrating to watch … it’s almost as if you’re watching a turtle butting up against a rock and you wish you could just turn it ten degrees so it would go along down the path. Eventually it will turn on its own. And part of what you have to do to understand is by observing and being patient, that we must each make our own way.
How old are you Jomama?
The reason why I ask…I ask for two reasons, one I know that Daniel is in his 40’s and I’m in my 40’s and hitting my own turtle-rock moment.
JJ: How lovely, dear.
Uh, thank you. And you left the country for a while and decided to come back so, the reason why I asked how old you were is, did you do that recently?
JJ: I left in my 20’s. I was away for quite a while. What is that saying, ‘if you don’t pay attention to aging, it won’t pay attention to you.’ (Chuckles.) I left in the 1980’s, so I’ll leave you to do the math. I left for very…very personal and political reasons. Of course, the personal is political. Chief among them, were the sense that I was watching, what I perceived to be, the dangerous part of the evolution of the country which involved a shift of the pursuits of the individual at the expense of others, of community; of the very basic care, welfare that we might invest it in others. And on a more personal level, I was creatively frustrated by my relationship with my, then, record label and to resist as I could the tide shift that I saw toward a further segregation in music. There was less and less opportunity. And frankly, I did not want to be regulated to the segregated label in record bin. My platform was far larger so I decided to leave. And it was the best decision I could have ever made.
And what did you do when you were away?
JJ: I went everywhere. I traveled the world and I continued to sing and I continued to write music. And I had ended up settling most recently in Europe because it fed a certain part of my consciousness by giving me space, to envision something new, while also providing me with a crossroads experience until I was ready to make my comeback.
Which is now?
JJ: Yes! Almost three years.
What has changed in the landscape? Not only in terms of a creative process, but also as a platform?
JJ: Well, it’s much more democratic now. I am tremendously excited by work that is being done by younger artists in music who are not bound stylistically in terms of a marketplace. If their muse leads them to live performance, so be it. If their muse leads them to record an entire album on their iPad or iPod in their living room, so be it. And they are finding means of direct delivery because now their art is going to be speaking to the communities that they wish to reach, freely. And just as I and many of my colleagues, in the day, have broad tastes in music, and in culture, why not be able to spread our light, to follow our interests, other than feel like we need to box ourselves. I don’t like boxes. I hope that’s a good answer.
It’s a complete answer. Your creative process…what is it? What does it comprise of?
JJ: For me, it’s what am I arrested by. I’m awakened by messages in the night by dreams, images. Sometimes it will come through as a color as if as though I was looking at a palette of colors and each one is pregnant with information. I’m following the smallest signs. The appearance of a bird on my windowsill; a spark of conversation passing the window. I’m arrested by moments that are like small packages that one unwraps and that inside those packages are questions. And those questions, they sit with me. They trouble me. They worry me until, all of a sudden, language will appear. A melody will appear. And I take those things and I record them. I’m drawn by a need that I can fill through the work that I make.
Does Daniel share the same process?
JJ: No, no, no.
He seems to have more rigor.
JJ: Dear, this is quite rigorous.
Rigor in the sense of, um…
JJ: He makes things busy for himself. I prefer the Ockham’s razor model of a straight line.
He seems to have more rules.
JJ: He seems to have more doubt. I don’t share that. The rules are contained within the inspiration. The shape is there already. One just simply needs to give it room to demonstrate itself. If you listen keenly enough; if you’re patient and are not worried. Too cerebral, which I fear, he is. Too cerebral. Doesn’t trust.
How did you come to trust? Or do you even care about that anymore and you just do.
JJ: It’s not a question, it is. Again, my dear, turtle against the rock. Take the turn.
Interview by Tanisha Christie
Feature image credit: Amelia Leigh Harris
Tanisha Christie is a producing filmmaker/performer and creative strategist. A certified spinning instructor and yoga enthusiast, she loves the beach and her white Specialized road bike. She’s hard at work on her next documentary project and too many other things. www.tanishachristie.com @tanishachristie.