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Tanisha Christie

Performance Artist Jomama Jones on Creating Your Own Path

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Performance Artist Jomama Jones on Creating Your Own Path

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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, Radiatein 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 TimesThe 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?

JJ: Dear…

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.

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Social Change + Art in Tanisha Christie's film, Walk With Me

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Social Change + Art in Tanisha Christie's film, Walk With Me

tanishawithcamera

You know how most documentaries feature a slew of talking heads lamenting about dying whales or something? You know you should be interested but then you doze off and wake up with a crick in your neck and drool on your chin from falling asleep on the couch? Let's be honest - sometimes a really compelling documentary can be hard to pull off. It takes a good story, interesting subjects, great footage and a whole lot of other things I'm completely unaware of to make it enticing. Drawing from a well of creativity coupled with incredible drive and determination, filmmaker Tanisha Christie directed and produced the film Walk With Me along with her co-director and co-producer, Ellie Walton; a process that has taken over five years. Inspired by her mentor and teacher, Rebecca Rice, Walk With Me profiles three women who use theater to inspire and connect with people in overlooked communities e.g. prisons and schools. The result is a compelling, interesting, moving, and inspiring documentary film about giving voice to the people often deemed voiceless and allowing them to access their own sense of power through theater, play, and discovery.

I'm not the only person diggin' the film. Walk With Me has been screened at multiple film festivals and has been used for educational presentations at various national universities; the film also won honorable mention at the 2012 San Francisco Black Film Festival and most recently, Best Documentary Feature at the Our City Film Festival in Washington, DC. Christie beautifully shared her creative process with CultureFphiles as well as the importance of yoga and cocktails to help make it through the challenging times.

Walk With Me is inspired by your relationship with your mentor, Rebecca Rice, who is one of the three women featured in the film. What about your relationship with her inspired you to make the film?

I met Rebecca while I was the Assistant Director at the former Living Stage Theater Company in Washington, DC. Working there was a pivotal time in my development as an artist because that experience not only deepened my craft as a performer and educator; I learned the responsibility of being an artist and while the nurturing of my own voice has value, there is significant value in sharing the creative process with others.

Rebecca brought an amazing amount of integrity to her creative work and taught me that process was just as important as the product. It is rare to find teachers or mentors who are so good at reflecting you back to yourself - for better or worse - she did that for me. She was adamant in giving me tools to figure out the 'whys' of wanting to make art - What stories did I want to tell? What songs did I want to sing and for what purpose? She would often challenge, 'you can sing in the shower, write a poem for yourself, but the minute you desire to share it with the world, what do you want the audience to experience? Why should they pay money to see it or hear it?' She firmly believed in the artist’s role in culture and society; and taught me to take great care in my role by having respect for myself as a theater artist.

In making Walk With Me, we, [Ellie Walton Co-Producer/Co-Director], wanted to share a slice of Rebecca’s story and the stories of our friends and colleagues who are doing similar work inspired by the same passions. When artists and community workers talk about ‘arts activism’ or ‘arts for social change,’ most don’t understand what that means. Instead of theater artists simply “talking” about this kind of creative work, we wanted to show what making theater with people actually looked like. We wanted viewers to witness the process and see how others' were moved by the experience.

What has it been like collaborating on the project with your partner, Ellie? What have you discovered in undertaking a project of this magnitude with another person?

Ellie and I had the rare gift of having the same artistic vision for the film. I enjoy collaboration immensely and both of us respect the concepts connected to having a process around making something – for example,  experimentation, taking-time, critical feedback. We also shared a huge respect for deadlines. You know how it is, we creative-types, we can sit in the nuances of our muse for a long time. At times, one of us would say, 'Let’s just try it this way and leave it!' Don’t get me wrong, we had disagreements and were frustrated by each other. We have very different working styles. But we left our egos at the door, knowing that what we wanted to achieve was greater. We wanted to make the most beautiful film we could make with the resources we had available. Period. I guess we were blessed with ignorance, in some ways. While we knew that making the film was going to be difficult, [Walk With Me is Walton's third feature length and Christie's first feature length film], we didn’t know what challenges were actually going to present themselves and thankfully, we’re both comfortable with being in the unknown.

Our real roadblocks were money and time. And our imagined roadblocks were money and time.

You've been working on Walk With Me for the past five years. How do you get through the real and imagined road blocks to manifesting your vision for the film?

Our real roadblocks were money and time. And our imagined roadblocks were money and time. Even though the means for filmmaking are getting easier, there are still costs associated with making a film. We raised 20% of what was needed to make the film; this was pre-Kickstarter so it was primarily done through Facebook , email campaigns, fundraising events and grants from Humanities Council of Washington, DC and the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities which we are extremely grateful to. We decided that we were not going to let money deter us. We capitalized on relationships; we had an amazing co-producer named Cat Mallone who came on to the project, amazing support from friends, family, cut costs where we could, and paid for essentials like licensing rights, animation, sound mastering, etc. Time and distance was a challenge because we both had to earn a living, Ellie was teaching and working on other projects in Washington, DC and I was in New York holding down a demanding corporate job. We essentially ‘stayed the course’ and didn’t focus too much on what we lacked but what we had keeping our vision in our sights.

But really I think we got through the blocks with well-timed cocktails and lots of yoga.

How do you move through any doubts, fears, or uncertainties as you continue to work on the film? Are there ever moments where you feel like giving up? Or where you question your commitment to the project?

We were fueled by the labor of love. I know that sounds cheesy but it’s true. We also allowed ourselves to take breaks from the project when, either our schedules were too tight or we were getting burnt out. I feel like we managed our uncertainty by becoming very protective of what we were making. The vision of the project changed three or four times, so there was a lot on the editing room floor, so to speak. And for me, they felt like huge losses but I had to quickly accept this as part of the process of filmmaking. I never feared that we weren’t going to make the film, I feared that it wouldn’t be seen which was a whole other part of this process – making the film is one thing…sharing it with the world is another, which is where we are with the film now. This is the aspect of this project that is the most tedious and time consuming in a different way and the least glamorous. I give up once a month. We’ve had some successes and some disappointments in this area, but I’m committed. I can’t see spending years making something and not giving a good go of sharing it with others. I suppose, this is where my tenacity meets my passion.

What keeps you motivated, inspired, and moving forward?

I’m not quite sure beyond a deep understanding that this is what I’m supposed to be doing although, I often go through periods of feeling lost and unsure. So I have to pay attention to each moment.

I just presented an excerpt of the film to 500 Juniors, Seniors and their teachers at the San Diego School of the Creative and Performing Arts, which is an amazing public school. These students were inspired and articulate about their chosen craft be it visual art, dance, music or theater. I was honored to be invited to speak to them about my creative career, which has taken many twists and turns. I had such a great time talking with them and they seemed to enjoy the presentation….so having 500 people clap, cheer and show appreciation…. yeah…that’ll keep me going for a long while.

Do you feel a sense of satisfaction when you have "finished" creating a piece of art? This question extends to your work as an actor and singer as well. Are you able to be present or feel a sense of finality in your accomplishments?

Ha. I hardly feel satisfied and accomplished! But I suppose, something is "finished" for me, when I decide to share it but at times, even after the audiences’ response, the show/performance/story, I might feel that more work needs to be done. So, I developed a part of my process that is called, 'Tanisha, put the project down' where I just force myself to stop nitpicking the project and myself in order to let my muse breathe.

I have yet to feel a sense of finality with anything that I’ve created. I guess I feel like my creative life is an extended novel, and with each project/show/performance it’s another chapter in an evolving story in my growth as an interdisciplinary artist.

Even with the film, if we were to watch it together, I can tell you everything that’s "wrong" with it. Or when I perform, even after the applause, I’m critiquing my performance. I’ve accepted these quirks and my perfectionism as a part of my process so I work on being kind to myself in these aspects. But no, I have yet to feel a sense of finality with anything that I’ve created. I guess I feel like my creative life is an extended novel, and with each project/show/performance it’s another chapter in an evolving story in my growth as an interdisciplinary artist.

What have you learned from this process? What are some of the things you were most surprised by?

I’ve accepted that I’m a whirling dervish when it comes to my creative life. I’ve begun to understand that, for me, content dictates form, meaning I have an idea and then my muse aids me in choosing how or if I will manifest it. And while this poses its ownchallenges around mastery of craft, time, and resources, I’m surprised by how deep of a creative well I have left.

Check out more information on Walk With Me.

Words by Jahan Mantin

Photo credit: JD Urban

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