Thursday, January 13, 2011

Jomama Jones: Radiate

Jomama Jones: Radiate, an incomparable performance art/concert created by singer-lyricist-performer-playwright Daniel Alexander Jones, is the first downtown theatre must-see experience of 2011. Jones (Jomama and her alter-ego, Daniel Alexander) is a brilliant persona, full of love, light, and beautiful lyrics and stories. The abundance of charisma and good will emanating from the small stage at Soho Rep makes the house feel ten times its size, enlarged by the presence of a personality who could fill a space ten times larger still.

Jomama calls herself a “diva”—in fact, one of Soho Rep’s supplementary “Feed” events is a panel discussion called “What Makes a Diva?” But while she comports herself theatrically, Jomama is far from the imperious narcissism the image implies. Jomama performs herself with the calculated flair of the constructed personality she is—she’s a fiction wholly of Alexander Jones’s creation. But she’s got so much heart, and her interactions with her audience, her back-up singers, and her bandleader are so genuine and generous, it’s easy to forget that she’s not, well, real.

Jomama’s warmth is fueled her delightful singing. She carries her 1980s-brand funk-, R&B-, jazz- and disco-inflected original songs with ease and aplomb, each number revealing a new side of Jomama’s soulful performance stylings. Her dancing is casually choreographed, showing off Jomama’s great legs and beautiful carriage, which are gilded by costumes (designed by Oana Botez-Ban and Ron Cesario) that shimmer and slink and cut across her shoulders on provocative biases. Jomama boasts three different costume changes (as any diva should—the appearance of each new gown is a small, sweet joke in Radiate), each of which heightens her statuesque beauty and its performativity.

Her first dress is white, tight, and short, cut straight to hang halfway down her thighs and loosely across her muscular chest. Her next outfit is steel gray, cut on a diagonal, leaving one shoulder bare and her legs freer, which lets her dance with more abandon. Her last costume is a stately gown that extends down to the floor and up to Jomama’s neck, bringing her more stature than seems possible, given that she already wears staggering platform shoes that help her tower over her companions on stage. When Jomama appears after the show to greet friends and admirers, she’s wearing yet another costume, a feathery, bright red number that seems to make even her huge, round, 1970s Afro glow. To say she cuts a striking figure is a desperate understatement; she’s a wonderfully special effect.

But in performance, her theatricality is also effective. Jomama entertains with joyous, infectious abandon that provokes the audience to shout their approval at the end of each song and to join in the clapping and the moving and grooving while she sings. Jomama is also a woman with a mission; her patter delivers hope and social faith that Alexander Jones carries off without sanctimony or excessive sentiment.

Thanks to Jomama’s ingenuous earnestness, she’s entirely winning as she tells the audience how she left the U.S. for Europe in the 1980s because she didn’t like where the country was heading politically. She’s warily decided to return home to stage her own comeback, and to participate in what she wants to believe is Obama’s on-going culture of change. Jomama handily creates such an ethos in her performance, making an audience of strangers into a community of people she encourages to care for one another, however fleeting our moments of connection. Like a lovely, smart, embodied Tinkerbelle-cum-drag queen, Jomama invites us to make wishes and to believe along with her, and damn if she doesn’t pull it off.

The evening’s magical quality begins as soon as spectators enter Soho Rep, where we’re met near the box office by the spritely Jing Xu, a slight, young performer dressed in a sparkly white costume that seems like a cross between a gymnastics uniform and a riding outfit, a look that seems at once futuristic and fantastical. Clown-white make-up outlines and extends her eyes, which contrasts starkly with her spiky black hair. She encourages us to write a wish on cards she draws from a basket in her arms. Spectators gamely scrawl down their thoughts, leaning up against the theatre’s walls or crouching by chairs to write.

Later in the evening, toward the show’s end, Jomama and her back-up singers, the Sweet Peaches (played deliciously by Sonya Perryman and the dazzling Helga Davis), take turns reading aloud spectators’ wishes. These short desires are by turns comic or sincere, but all are announced with the graceful hope that through community, our wishes can in fact come true.

Jing Xu acts as a kind of Puck figure throughout the evening, welcoming the audience and providing the night’s benediction much in the spirit of Puck’s “If we spirits have offended, think but this and all is mended . . .” speech at the end of Midsummer. She moves stools on and off the stage for Jomama and the Sweet Peaches, and brings Jomama the occasional glass of water, moving with the fluidity of a dancer and the heightened theatricality of someone who knows she’s collaborating on a charmed event.

The narrow, deep stage at Soho Rep is set and dressed for a concert. Band-leader Bobby Halvorson (who wrote and composed the music with Alexander Jones with help from Sharon Bridgforth, Grisha Coleman, and Amy Hunt) fronts a five-piece band behind a round platform surrounded by sheer white curtains that Jomama and the Sweet Peaches pull around a track to expose and reveal the band and themselves in different configurations throughout the night.

The band and the singers are dressed in neutral shades of white, gray, and khaki which, thanks to lovely lighting designed by Lucrecia Briceno and David Bengali, seem to shimmer and reflect prismatically (occasionally assisted by the disco ball that hangs from the flies like a talisman).

Jomama grounds the heavenly scene, interacting with the musicians, the Sweet Peaches, and what quickly becomes her adoring audience. She’s beautiful, her Afro large, her heels high, her long legs striking, her face handsomely made-up, and her body passing convincingly as female. One of the pleasures of Alexander Jones’s drag, in fact, is how lightly it’s worn. His effortless performance suggests, in fact, that he’s not “crossing” gender so much as embracing a femininity that’s as much a part of him as masculinity. Neither does he parody women.

Alexander Jones’s is a lovely, loving, and lived-in performance that lets him revel in his adornments and use them as a vehicle for affect more than effect. So many drag performances are about surface, about gender as a set of constructed social codes we perform by cultural agreement. But that chestnut of feminist and queer theory isn’t Alexander Jones’s central point. His achievement with Jomama is how he fills in her outline with affective substance, with emotional care and connection that trumpets his (and by extension our) humanity.

Jomama interacts with the audience like a quick-witted stand-up comic. She asks people their names, playing off their responses with good humor and style. The evening feels improvisational, as good concerts do, persuading us that the performer really is with us in the moment and hasn’t told her stories a hundred times before. Kym Moore’s subtle but confident direction helps Jomama establish a physical connection with the audience. She comes off the stage into the house halfway through the show to tell part of her story, standing in the aisle for one of her numbers and shaking people’s hands. In between songs, house lights come up on the audience, so that Jomama and the Sweet Peaches can see who they’re addressing from the stage.

Jomama’s patter relates the story of her come-back. Although the character is fabricated, Alexander Jones appeals to the malleable operations of memory to nearly persuade us that we can remember her original performances in the ‘80s, and to convince us that we’re happy she’s back. In fact, Jomama’s amazing and amusing “realness” brings her fully to life. Alexander Jones believes in his character, and her charisma and caring makes it easy to invest in her presence.

He delivers the cabaret-style act with dialogic panache, a Martin Buber-esque enactment of intersubjective attention that ennobles both speaker and listener. Buber, the Jewish philosopher-theologian, also believed in the “wish” as a kind of performative utterance, something transformative for not just the person wishing, but for the world. Jomama and the Sweet Peaches embody just this sort of potential.

Jomama’s voice beautifully blends male and female sounds into a resonant baritone. Davis and Perryman harmonize gracefully, and provide additional radiant energy and focus that gleams like an aura around their star. Halvorson sometimes joins the trio on stage to sing along. The performers’ musical camaraderie is accomplished, their pleasure contagious.

I saw Jomama Jones: Radiate the day after the New York Times ran its favorable review. Many of the wishes Jomama and the Sweet Peaches read out at the show’s end were from people on the waiting list hoping to get in to see the performance. But Times reviewer David Rooney slightly missed the point of Radiate. He compared Jomama to the drag persona created by Justin Bond for the lounge-singing duo Kiki and Herb. The comparison couldn’t be less apt. Where Kiki is a liquor-soaked harpy at the piano, mercurial as she swings between contrition and vengeance for her difficult life, Jomama’s voice and her presence is all about shining light.

Alexander Jones’s reference isn’t Bond’s Kiki, but divas of color like Josephine Baker, Lena Horne, and Teena Marie, who graced the world not just with their strength of their voices, but with the size of their souls. Like each of them, Jomama, too, has struggled; Alexander Jones creates her as a woman for whom being in the world requires persistence, faith, and a spirit of grace.

The on-stage world that he conjures, accompanied so ably by Davis, Perryman, and Halvorson’s band, is one of love and hope, embodied in an evening of theatre magic. Alexander Jones’s performance is filled with a sharp theatrical and political intelligence that’s most obvious when he's improvising with the audience. His eyebrows raise, his voice deepens for a moment with interest, empathy, and a wicked wit, and his foot jumps off up the ground just enough to lift his hip in a kind of wry punctuation.

But Jomama doesn’t invest in irony. Her music and her outfits—and in some ways, her outlook—might hail from the ‘80s, but Alexander Jones doesn’t parody her anachronisms. On the contrary, she reminds us of something good and right, something we might reach back to and forward toward all at once, to grasp a pre-terror New York when we could with easy confidence be the community Jomama wishes for us throughout the evening.

It’s impossible not to be affected by Jomama’s example. She radiates the love and hope she wishes for us all.

The Feminist Spectator


  1. Such thoughtful and insightful writing. I am so happy that you were present/and that you shared your expertise and feminist flava with us. As a long time fan of Jomama and dem, I am moved and grateful! Blessings and Joy! Love Sharon

  2. This is just lovely Jill. I so appreciate how you emphasized what an angel Daniel/Jomama really reminded me of the first time I took a workshop with Daniel. "Being in the presence" just changed my life, that's all. What a gift to bring to any audience. So smart, too, to correct the straight reviewers who all think this has to be described in terms of a "drag show." No. As you said, he is embracing and highlighting his own femininity. This is a performer who has created a character he fully, authentically embodies. (And I haven't even seen the show, just clips!)