If you ask Daniel Alexander Jones how he came up with the character of Jomama Jones, he will tell you she is not his creation – she just chose him as her vehicle.
Starting Wednesday, Jomama Jones takes to the stage at Pillsbury House Theatre for her musical show “Radiate Live!” The tour is earned warm reviews from the New York Times and Time Out New York. I asked Daniel Alexander Jones a few questions about Jomama, her past, and what “Radiate” is all about.
1. Who is Jomama Jones? What’s her story?
Jomama Jones was part of a wave of dynamic performers who hit the scene in the early 1980s. Like other children of the Civil Rights Era, she sought to live the dream freely in the space that had been made for her by the previous generations. Her records were staples on R&B and pop radio and her appearances on Soul Train, Solid Gold and American Bandstand are the stuff of legend. When she left America, for reasons she discusses in the show, she did not look back. She traveled the world and continued to perform; she became, as had others before her, an expatriate presence. She returned to the studio in 2009 and has now released three new recordings, Lone Star, Radiate and Six Ways Home. She’s performed in several venues nationally and enjoyed a sold-out run of RADIATE at Soho Rep in NYC. She is currently at work on two new projects and has a lot to sing about and share.
2. How did her creation come about?
I didn’t create Jomama. She chose me to come through. In truth, I channel her, versus perform her. I am an actor and writer and believe me I would be the first to take credit for her if I could (smile) but I cannot. It’s a kind of collaboration. She first appeared to me when I was 25, then living in Minneapolis on a Jerome Fellowship at the Playwrights’ Center. I wove her through one of my early performance pieces and she stole the show. Then she went away. In 2009, I went through a series of huge personal upheavals, which included a complete reassessment of my work and role as an artist. In the midst of my plans and schemes, like a comet returning from a long arc, Jomama reappeared to me, with incredible force and clarity. The first things she demanded were the reins, and that I contact Bobby Halvorson. Straight up. What is unfolding artistically is the most exciting process of which I’ve ever been a part.
3. What’s Jomama’s mission? Put otherwise, why is she taking Radiate on tour?
Stories shape realities. The stories we tell, the stories we are told, the stories within which we are asked to live, the stories we need to keep ourselves here, the stories we encounter that function like cages, the stories that open portals to new ways of seeing… Songs are sites and delivery systems for stories of incalculable power. What are the songs that sing our truths individually; and what are our collective songs? Jomama Jones is on a mission to sing to you; to invite you to play inside the stories-as-songs that speak to some aspects of our collective resilience and radiance which may – in some cases not all – have been dampened, or which may have lost their strength of signal in the static of our age. She is also deeply curious, looking for evidence of us, here, now – what is the melody we are making?
4. What do you get out of performing her?
These are two true things about my work: one, it is only when the people have gathered and we are all in the live experience together that the work happens; two, there are phases of the creative process which give me great pleasure privately, but the point is always the sharing/the dialogue with others; I chose theatre because it is ultimately a public, participatory form. I have the great blessing of collaborating with artists on this project who engage their full potential and do so with grace, presence and humor. They do not hide behind irony or cynicism. They go all in; they bring it. I get to work with Bobby Halvorson, whom I consider to be a musical genius (the wonderful work he does on this project is but one aspect of his wide ranging practice); the singers, musicians, designers, crew… all of them golden. And I get to return to Pillsbury House Theatre – an organization that embodies what I believe a 21st Century theatre needs to be – a place for gathering inside of and around artistically rigorous adventures; a place where truly everyone who wishes to be there is welcome to be a part; a place that debunks the practice of maintaining theatre as an elite art form. Faye Price and Noel Raymond are two of my art-heroes. It is an absolute honor to work with them on this project.
5. Why is now the time for Jomama Jones to make a comeback on American stages?
A dear friend, the playwright Erik Ehn, often says “what you water will grow”. There is an overgrowth of cynicism, irony and anger which I experience in my country. No one ever told me love was easy. No one ever told me life wasn’t work. If, as an artist, in collaboration with other artists (and forces of nature like Jomama) I can contribute to the remembering of our collective capacity to engage the hard work of love and presence, then I am fulfilling my purpose. I believe that now is Jomama’s time to be back because she has the technology to do this; every time we perform, I learn from her. I am not kidding when I say she comes through – I think, in fact, that she may be able to see the future.
Radiate Live! runs through June 24 at Pillsbury House Theatre in Minneapolis.