Reviews: Jomama Jones’ Brilliant Journey Into the ‘Black Light,’ and a Futile Search for ‘Relevance’
The Daily Beast
February 25, 2018
Do you want to feel transformed? There is a little slice of magic at Joe’s Pub at New York’s Public Theater, and it comes with edges both hard and soft.
In Black Light, Daniel Alexander Jones’ alter ego, Jomama Jones, has stories of experience and resistance to sing and tell. These stories and songs are witty and serious, thought-through, qualified, nuanced, and tricky. And so is the glamorous Jomama, through whom James explores—as Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the Public puts it—“race, gender, queerness, identity, and community.”
Jomama, stunningly beautiful and gorgeously dressed with a glittering, commanding glamor, came into being in 1996, her creator tells us in the program. In his first piece, Blood:Shock:Boogie, Daniel wanted to imagine who would be its “Soulsonic Superstar” to help convey the cultural and political force of black music.
Jomama, “whole, resonant, radiant,” was born. She was not a character, writes Daniel. “She was not my creation. She existed beyond me. She moved with autonomous force. And she had questions for me! Some of them would take years to answer…
“In short order, she manifested, entering my own awkward body, nudging my bones, pulling my muscles, deepening my breath, looking back at me in the mirror, and guiding me, effortlessly, to make the marks on my face that would, in turn, reveal her face to the world.”
Taking to the stage for every performance, Daniel, head of the playwriting program at Fordham University, isn’t sure what Jomama will do on any given night, or what questions she will ask “at the crossroads” the shows present.
Black Light is a “musical revival for turbulent times” with original songs by Jomama with Bobby Halvorson, Dylan Meek, Josh Quat, and Laura Jean Anderson. Samora Abayomi Pinderhughes’ musical direction is resonantly textured, and beautifully executed by additional members of the company Tariq Al-Sabir, Sean Dixon, and Michelle Marie Osbourne. Vuyo Satashe and Trevor Bachman are Jomama’s two impish back-up singers.
There are 12 songs in the show, variously encompassing ballad, rock, and hymn, and combinations of all three. Jomama comes into the audience; don’t worry, she seeks to chat and lightly investigate, but not mock or humiliate. “What if I told you it’s going to be alright? What if I told you not yet?” she asks at the beginning of where we are all at now, personally and politically.
There is a lot of questioning of the audience, a lot of questioning of herself, and what she has experienced, and what she knows and doesn’t know. The show is the best advertisement for the spirit of inquiry wherever it may take us.
The show asks searching things of our present time and America’s racial history and violence, while paying a full-throated, light-hearted, and deadly serious tribute to Prince, Jones’ hero as a teen. Both Jones and friend-and-rival Tamika engaged in mortal combat to emulate the artist while at school.
Then wait to meet Aunt Cloetha, the terrifying (to chickens anyway), inspiring figure who Jones reveals to us is the key to the show, and who knew what it was possible to see in the “black light.” To be a witness, to be vigilant: this is what Aunt Cloetha felt she needed to be because of something terrible in her past. She becomes a powerful guide in Jomama’s present.
All of these figures, all of the things Jomama feels passionately about, come enrichingly alive in Black Light. You half expect Aunt Cloetha to appear to terrify us, and any passing fowl, all in person. Jomama offers no directive answers but many intriguing ideas and pathways to explore, and even more inspiring strategies around how to cope with the world we are in.
At the end, you want more stories, more Jomama, more of her spirit, more hard and soft magic.
Relevance is a brave title for JC Lee’s new play. It is not only a statement of its central theme, but also a statement of declared dramatic intent. Like other plays this season—birthed by our roiling political and cultural spheres—it is seeking to be relevant, in its own case a little too hard.
There are some zingers and some firecracker moments in Lee’s tale of Msemaji (Pascale Armand), a younger black feminist, and Theresa (Jayne Houdyshell), an older white feminist, going to war. There is also a lot of circular grizzling.
The spoils, the prize, the battlefield, overseen by director Liesl Tommy, is “relevance,” and who has the chops to secure and maintain it for herself; and what “relevance” means; how it can be won and lost.
However, the persistent mystery as the two women snipe and gripe is what exactly is motivating their animus, apart from conflicting ages and ambition. For Lee, the two women just simply don’t understand or accept one another; race will dramatically derail their barbed animosity once and for all.
The setting is the present day in an American hotel, a conference of arts and letters, but there is not a whisper of Time’s Up. As seen in the fallout from the Shitty Media Men list or the debate over Aziz Ansari’s skewering by a former date, some older and younger feminists are engaged in conversation over sexual abuse and consent in the post-Weinstein world. That surely fruitful area of debate goes unmentioned here.
At the performance I saw, the actors struggled with a freshly cast section of script. If there are rewrites happening this late, why aren’t they making the play feel more current? The show feels like a lot of fraught hot air, long on rambling back-and-forths about who has the right or not to speak, but short on substance.
Relevance opens with a debate between the two women, chaired by Kelly, played by Molly Camp, who is excellent at trying in vain to stem the animosity ramping up about her. She brightly and desperately tells people watching online to hunt and tag comments with the hashtag LitLadies (it remains funny the more it is repeated).
Also in attendance is David (Richard Masur), Theresa’s agent. At one time they were lovers, behind their respective partners’ backs.
The opening scene posits Theresa as the insensitive, vain, over-talking peacock, presuming to speak for everybody and everything, including Msemaji’s blackness.
“I think it’s dangerous to go too far down any road that seeks to use otherness as a sort of righteous victimhood,” says Msemaji. Theresa and her ilk define themselves in opposition, she says, “which gives those in power what they need to oppress you.”
And so we’re off; Theresa dismissing Msemaji’s memoir about being raped as “egomaniacal” and “indulgent.”
Msemaji is on Twitter; she has every corner of social media colonized. Theresa is a reluctant, late adopter. Why should she, she thinks? She has worked in the feminist trenches for years. Shouldn’t her “relevance” be eternal given how much she has worked. How, she wonders, can Msemaji simply swan in and take over a bigger space and make her look like a past-it relic? “Twitter is hardly Vidal versus Buckley,” she says.
Msemaji sees Theresa as an implacable island of white privilege, who only talks the talk about female solidarity and empowerment; for Msemaji Theresa is a dinosaur, paying only polemical lip-service to diversity and plurality.
When Theresa discovers her young rival has lied about herself, she prepares to use it as ammunition. But Msemaji is too fast for her; and the internet congratulates the younger feminist on her reinvention. Theresa, in her land of facts being respected, of accepted standards of behavior, is furious.
For Theresa, Msemaji and her young peers are “lazy” and “self-aggrandizing,” and in thrall to their feelings. For Msemaji, Theresa is a coward, “piggybacking on the rage of the moment.”
This really doesn’t go anywhere, though the acting is nuanced enough our own loyalties swing behind both women at different moments.
Oddly, the two standout moments have nothing to do with Theresa and Msemaji’s exhausting, predictable butting-of-heads. David gives a brilliantly funny speech about the eternal frustration of being a Knicks fan if you’re a New Yorker. “We happened to be born sports fans in a particular place and time, we should be made to suffer?” he ponders.
In another scene he and Theresa remember stolen moments at another such event as this in Oslo. When David calls something hip, Theresa shoots back, “Orthopedists say hip. Everyone else is using a different word now.”
Theresa plans a final ambush to destroy Msemaji. Foolishly she tries to master the internet to do so; the most effective part of Derek McLane’s design are the screens of scrolling online messages that ensue. The outrage machine rolls on endlessly, its own constantly recasting fruit machine of “relevance.”