The first time I attended a concert by the silky-smooth yet tough-willed soul diva Jomama Jones, several years ago at Soho Rep, I had questions. Is it drag? Is it satire or camp or avant-garde? Her answer: It’s just Jomama.
Writer-director-performer Daniel Alexander Jones has been honing his art for years, but he reached a new level of prominence with his singing alter ego, Jomama. This glamorous and soothing chanteuse, who calls to mind soul singers of the 1970s and ’80s, is a unique creation. Exploring the intersection of race, spirituality, and queerness through song and audience interaction, Jones-as-Jomama is bringing his latest work, Black Light, to the Greenwich House Theater for an off-Broadway commercial run. The piece premiered in February at Joe’s Pub, but Jones and his lead producer, Diana DiMenna, are inviting a new audience to bathe in the healing glow of Jomama. What Should We Do?! chatted with Jones during a rehearsal break about black drag, gender fluidity, and Jomama’s healing energy.
What Should We Do?!: Black Light premiered earlier this year at Joe’s Pub. What’s different about this run at Greenwich House Theater?
Daniel Alexander Jones: Number one is that we added a couple new songs, which build on the experience that we had at the Public. Our engagement with the audience and the questions and reflections they gave back to us over those weeks led us to think about what else we might offer. And the other thing is that we’ve been so lucky to work with Tea Alagić. She is the director this time around and she’s bringing visual richness to the material and to the space. There’s a lot of expanded beauty.
WSWD: Since Jomama talks to the audience between songs, to what extent do you incorporate events of the day, politics, and such?
Jones: That’s always a part of the show, part of the structure. [Jomama] very much spontaneously engages with what is on her mind on a given day, but also with what’s happening in that room. She, along with so many people, really recognizes this as a crossroads moment in our nation, where we have a lot of choices to make about what we’re going to do moving forward.
WSWD: So given our crazy politics right now, is Jomama angry?
Jones: I think anger is one of many emotions that she has, and one of the themes in the show is that we really want to encourage everyone to feel all of the feelings. Anger is one of them, but it’s not the only one.
There was a long time where I didn’t work with Jomama, and then she came back into my life at a very big point of upheaval and change and said, “Give me the reins of this work; I have things to do.”
WSWD: How did you come to create the Jomama persona?
Jones: I’m very transparent about the fact that I don’t believe I “created” her; I feel like I tuned into her, I channeled her. This was in 1995, when I lived in the Twin Cities. I was a young performance artist. I was working on a piece that had a section about growing up in my neighborhood, which was predominantly black. One of the things all of us kids did was watch Soul Train on the weekend, and we would come out and learn all the dances and routines. I was paying homage in this piece to Soul Train, and I wanted to embody it in some way. I didn’t want to do an impersonation of a well-known artist, so I asked: Who would that figure be? And she appeared out of whole cloth. I performed her for a few years in that piece. Then there was a long time when I didn’t work with her, and then she came back into my life at a very big point of upheaval and change and said, “Give me the reins of this work; I have things to do.” That was a couple years before we did Radiate. I started making music, recording records, and building shows. Since then, she’s been the focal point of my career.
WSWD: What was the period of upheaval and change?
Jones: Well, as an energy and an entity, Jomama feels like an older, wiser sister to me, someone who is a bit ahead of the curve. Her energy helped me through some difficult periods, personally and professionally. Some of that has to do with our field. I’ve always been an interdisciplinary artist, working outside of categories and labels. At one point, I was in my mid- to late 30s, and it was a time when I felt like I didn’t quite know how to navigate the field. I didn’t fit anybody’s preexisting concept of what I should be doing. I wasn’t all playwright or all performance artist or all director or all any one thing. When she came through, somehow everything was able to fit inside of her, and she didn’t have that hesitancy or need to explain. She just had a magnetic force. All these things started to organize around her, in a way that somehow was more legible.
WSWD: There’s a tradition of African-American men playing women for comic effect or drag artistry. You have Flip Wilson to Tyler Perry, the drag artists in Paris Is Burning, and, of course, RuPaul. Do you place Jomama in that tradition?
Jones: It’s a wonderful question, one that other folks and I have tried to wrangle with. I don’t consider her drag. There’s a very clear and beautiful and complicated tradition of drag performance. And so by fact of my being a male-bodied person who is stepping into those shoes, quite literally, that history comes with me. But what I experience her to be is much more a channeling or presence, almost a visitation, if you will. So I give my body over as a vessel, and unlike a lot of drag performance where the performer is present inside or alongside the persona, I go away. If anything, if you look at the tradition in ball culture and Paris Is Burning, there’s a certain element of what they call realness. The idea that you want to fade away, you want to be fully inhabited by, you want to fully inhabit the persona. But it feels to me more connected to religious ritual performance. Particularly West African and those African diaspora traditions in the Americas, where you invite that energy into your body and you let it do what it needs to do, then it goes away. I’m not as interested in camp or a certain kind of artifice and humor that comes from the nudge and wink of being inside the persona. I really want to get out of the way, so Jo can be with you all. That’s the whole point.
I give my body over as a vessel, and unlike a lot of drag performance where the performer is present inside or alongside the persona, I go away.
WSWD: Since I saw you in Radiate years ago, the conversation about trans identity and how to represent it has accelerated so much. Do you identify as a trans person?
Jones: I admire the language that has been developed, so profoundly and courageously, by the trans community. This new generation is fierce and beautiful. And, of course, I think about folks like the extraordinary Kate Bornstein, who’s been doing this for so many years and was the vanguard in terms of claiming space and language. My own experience is one of gender fluidity. I identify as a male-bodied person. I have traditionally used “he” and “him.” And Jomama is a woman, and she is her. I feel like I have these two energies in my body.