Jomama Jones Makes Her Comeback With ’Radiate’
When Daniel Alexander Jones performs his 1970s soul diva alter-ego Jomama Jones, it is more than simply drag. Certainly, by his own admission, the performance is akin to a possession. He ’becomes’ Jomama Jones and acts, dances, moves and even thinks in a uniquely different way. Jomama Jones was conceived from a number of converging African-American pop culture influences; from R&B music, to Dianna Ross, to the rhetoric of the civil rights movement- it all gave rise to the fabulous diva that Daniel masterfully embodies.
Jomama Jones has been on hiatus in recent years, notably taking a sojourn in the Swiss Alps. But now she is back with a bang in her latest interactive stage show "Radiate," which will be taking place at the Theatre Offensive Boston at the Hibernian Hall, this Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
The gig promises to be an experience that offers the potential for transgressions across social and political boundaries. Indeed, Jomama Jones can be regarded as a "visionary in a critical moment for the movement: art, music, sexuality, community." EDGE caught up with Daniel Alexander Jones ahead of the performances to discuss the birth of Jomama Jones, soul music, and social and political criticism.
Where did Jomama come from?
EDGE: Can you start by talking a little about your early career? Was Jomama there from the start?
Daniel Alexander Jones: I started as an actor, and I began my professional work in 1993. And when I realized that the number of roles I could go up for were pretty small, I started to write stories that I could perform, and stories for other people that I wanted to see on stage. One of my first big performance pieces included Jomama as a character on Soul Train, and she was in many ways a reflection on my childhood, and an examination of the differing cultural influences that I grew up with.
So I had this skit about Soul Train with Jomama, and I toured that piece, and that included the Boston theater at the Theatre Offensive, and that was in 1996. And then I didn’t perform Jomama again after that and I continued to make performance art, and I started to write full length plays. I also put an emphasis on directing - so my twenties and my early thirties were dedicated to creating work that other people could be a part of, or work that other people could primarily perform.
EDGE: So why did you create the persona of Jomama Jones? There is such an elaborate and complex back story to this character...I guess in other words, how and why was Jomama imagined and conceived?
Daniel Alexander Jones: Well I joke around that she kind of sprung into my head, and I think there was no formal research or formal process. I suppose it was more a case of being saturated in the many realities within which I grew up. So in many ways she was inspired by figures in black popular culture and American popular culture in general - figures like Dianna Ross, Donna Summer etc, and they became a part of her DNA. And there was something about the combination of artistry and the political side of the civil rights movement that really inspired her creation. It was not about collapsing or assimilating, but rather carrying the culture out to a broader audience. I suppose it was like a pressure cooker that popped, and when Jomama came, she was whole.
A transformative experience?
EDGE: Can you speak more to the performance side of becoming Jomama? Is it something that you find transformative and liberating - the process of stepping into another’s shoes?
Daniel Alexander Jones: Absolutely, and I was just writing about my experience of performing her. The thing that she affords me an opportunity to do is very liberatory, and it allows me to leave my own consciousness behind if you will, and it allows me to fully step into Jomama’s shoes. And it is like she exists, and I exist, and we kind of meet in this other place, which isn’t dissimilar to other performance traditions around the world that are based on masks and things like that. I am allowing her character to enter my body so to speak. So when I am giving over to her, I truly absorb her. And she does things, and says things and walks in ways, and even moves my body in ways that I would never do. So on that level it is a process that I have become accustomed to. And I think it is a part of theatrical tradition going back way into the past - entering that unknown space. In many ways you are abandoning intellect and entering into that liminal space. I find it immensely rewarding and exciting.
EDGE: And what is it about soul music that you love and that moves you and that you find accessible?
Daniel Alexander Jones: That body of music is a confluence of many things. It was a music that came from a cultural tradition that had to deal with all kinds of oppressions, and it is all about how you turn something painful, difficult and even poisonous, into something beautiful. And when I was younger there was a kind of unified force among artists, even if their sound was very different. There emerged an optimism out of difficult things, like a broken heart or a betrayal, or how you keep you spirit up in the face of adversity. So the idea of community kind of drew me to it. But it is also such an incredible music. And I like to think that Bobbie and I have created something that really belongs to the present moment, but that has its roots in R&B and rock, and that is really inspired by that time period.
A political agenda
EDGE: Does your work have a social or political agenda? The information for your gig posits that you are a "visionary in a critical moment for the movement: art, music, sexuality, community" - can you speak more to that?
Daniel Alexander Jones: I would say that it always has that. However I would never presume, and I am really adamant about this, that what I offer will be effective at getting a single political stand or opinion across. And this is because the audience is constructed of individual, critical people who think for themselves, so I don’t know that what I offer will ever have a single effect. But I think that I wanted to make a space in which I can invite people across what I call perceived barriers- the places where we limit our interactions with each other based on political language or historical experience - and I like to think my performance invites those transgressions. So there is a movement across barriers like class and gender identity. If I have a vision, I hope that it is that when you are in the experience of the concert, and that when you leave, you think of those interactions. And I think that is the problem with the progressive movement- it focuses so much on the politics and less on actual human interaction.
EDGE: You are coming to Boston this week (Thursday, Friday and Saturday) and you’ll be performing ’Radiate’ and the Hibernian hall in Roxbury. Can you talk more about the show? What can audiences expect? It promises to be an interactive experience, so can you tell us more about that?
Daniel Alexander Jones: So this is Jomama Jones’ comeback tour. You will come and you will be at her concert. We have a full set of original songs that we have recorded, Bobby and I, and we have four albums. So all of this music is our own music, we don’t do any covers. And the purpose of this is that Jomama tells her story; what her career was, why she left, why she was drawn back to the States, and what she has found now she is back here. So we will talk with the audience, and without giving too much away, I will say that she is a very friendly presence. So if you are in the audience and afraid of talking, you really don’t have to worry, she is really gentle. She will not bite you... unless you want that! (laughs) And it runs for just about 90 minutes.
A comeback with a mission
EDGE: The theme is making a ’comeback’. Can you speak more about what inspired that decision and why you think that idea is important?
Daniel Alexander Jones: I did do a great deal of research over several years about the impact that the visits to Europe had on a number of black artists, and the perspective it gave them. And the idea of a comeback, well I went through a rough patch a while ago, and it was during that proverbial ’dark night of the soul’ that Jomama returned to me, not even as an idea, but as a presence, and she told me to jump on board with her. So her comeback allows me to have a personal comeback.
And it allows for a new chapter of my creative and personal life. And a comeback is when the world has unambiguously told you no, and you have to find within your own consciousness a new footing in the world and a way to keep moving.
EDGE: What was the experience like of working with Bobby Halvorson on ’Radiate?’ What were the highlights for you?
Daniel Alexander Jones: I will tell you that working with Bobby has been the most extraordinary collaboration of my career. We are completely opposite, we are very different people, and we come from different coasts and different family backgrounds etc. There is, however, something about our collaboration that just works, and the one thing we both share is a super strong work ethic! We put in a lot of time. But yes, it is a very intuitive process, met with a very strong work ethic.
EDGE: And what is next for you? Can we expect more from Jomama in the future?
Daniel Alexander Jones: Absolutely! We are in the process of fixing our next album which will come out in 2014. And Bobby and I have written a full adaptation of the second book of ’The Wizard of Oz’ and we will be performing that in Austin, Texas next summer, and Jomama will also have a new evening show built around this album. I feel that Jomama really came back with a mission and a heavy work load! But I am super excited to come to Boston and share this with you guys.
Jomama Jones performs Radiate on Thursday, Nov. 15, Friday, Nov. 16 and Saturday, Nov. 17, 2013 at Hibernian Hall, 184 Dudley Street, Boston, MA. For times and ticket information, visit The Theater Offensive website.