By: Samuel L. Leiter
October 23, 2018: Daniel Alexander Jones is unquestionably a multidimensional talent of powerhouse proportions. Head of the playwriting program at Fordham University, he’s also an innovative, award-winning writer, director, singer, actor, and composer, best known as a performer for his alter ego, Jomama Jones. An 80s-style R&B and disco diva in the Tina Turner, Diana Ross, Dionne Warwick vein, Jomama, who even gets her own Playbill bio, is the heart and soul of Black Light, a cabaret cum secular sermon. The show, now at the Greenwich House Theater in the West Village, was first seen during 2017’s Under the Radar Festival, after which it had a successful run earlier this year at Joe’s Pub.
Jomama, the “high priestess of the crossroads,” wears flashy makeup, high heels, eye-poppingly glamorous gowns, and a woman’s stylish, Afro wig; she also vocalizes and behaves in ways most people would identify as undeniably “femme.” Her singing voice is richly alto, her speaking voice warmly baritone. Interestingly, Jomama’s biracial creator, highly invested in gender issues, rejects the term drag queen (which I once used in my review of Jones in Duat). To Jones, Jomama is a spiritual being he channels while identifying as a cisgender man.
Jomama dominates designer Gabe Evansohn’s intimate, cocktail-table environment. Her platform shoes make her six feet-plus tower over everyone, while her series of sequined and glossy ensembles by Oana Botez snare all eyes. So bright is her smile she almost makes superfluous the razzle dazzle of Ania Park and Michael Cole’s lighting.
Accompanying her are two excellent male backup singers (Trevor Bachman and Vuyo Sotashe), her “vibrations,” wearing suits sequined in electric blue. Behind them is musical director and pianist Tariq Al-Sabir, leading the silver-suited, top-notch orchestra of Sean Dixon on drums, Michelle Marie Osbourne on bass, and Josh Quat on guitar.
Under Tea Alagić’s expert direction, Jomama moves back and forth between the stage and audience, singing a dozen songs, telling stories, and interacting, adlibbing, and even flirting with the customers. This creates an immersive atmosphere in which Jomama’s warm charisma and earth mother wisdom push the audience toward a unifying experience during which it’s asked to bond.
This was a crossroads I hoped not to meet, especially when we were asked to hold the hand of a neighboring stranger as Jomama crooned abstruse lyrics explaining that a supernova means a star is dying. As I held the hand of the white-haired, elderly woman next to me I noticed the tears streaming down her face while all I could think of was that she had a firm grip, a dry, slightly coarse palm, and my unhappy hand in hers. Please spare me the kumbaya.
As this handholding experience suggests, I didn’t appreciate the content of the evening as much as I did its performance. The chief narrative material concerns Jomama’s high school-girl sexual desire for the music icon Prince, and its relation to an astronomy lesson about black holes, while much of the rest is about her childhood memories of her Aunt Cleotha in the South.
The latter forms an almost shaggy dog story at whose end we learn that one of her shotgun-wielding aunt’s arms dangles as it does as the result of an incident concerning the white reaction to a black soldier’s wearing a military uniform. If you saw the recent Separate but Equal, you may recall a similar story. Aside from Jomama’s expressive telling of them, these tales, despite their social implications (including Cleotha’s calling herself a “witness” in the African-American historical context), are not of great dramatic interest.
The expertly played, sung, and staged music, blanketed in the stylings of 80s disco, with infusions of rock, is easy to listen to but never exceeds being a pastiche, while the words, for all their intimations of deeper meanings, too often have an artsy, poetic vagueness whose ideas get lost in the sounds. In addition to Jomama’s originals, there are numbers by Bobby Halverson, Laura Jean Anderson, Dylan Meek, and Josh Quat, with additional music by Samora Pinderhughes and Tariq Al-Sabir.
Unquestionably, the “crossroads” we’re facing, to which Jomama often refers without being too specific, is the racial, political, economic, and social one of America in 2018. She’s never polemical, though, and tries hard to embrace her audience regardless of its politics. Still, it’s hard not to know where she stands when, at the final curtain, she commands us: “So, choose!” And soon we will.
Black Light ***
Greenwich House Theater
27 Barrow St., NYC
Through December 31, 2018
Photography: Chad Batka