In the fascinating, historically much-disputed ancient Egyptian ritual known as the Abydos Passion Play, legend has it that priests led a massive pageant each year, reenacting the myth of the god Osiris’s death and resurrection. After he was murdered by an angry rival, Osiris’s limbs were strewn up and down the Nile, then lovingly collected and reassembled by the moon goddess Isis.
Duat, the latest from writer and performance artist Daniel Alexander Jones, stages a sort of queer, black Abydos Passion Play, collecting fragments of past selves to resurrect an autobiographical coming-of-age. Directed by Will Davis and produced by Soho Rep at the Connelly, Jones’s intriguing, exuberantly odd concoction combines personal and communal histories with Egyptian mysticism, a passionate ode to libraries, and meditations on afterlives of all kinds (the play’s title refers to the Egyptian world of the dead).
Unfolding in two acts — an unearthing of the past, and a ritual of rebirth — Duat opens in the soft glow of a library reading room, where a wooden table is dotted with old-school card catalog drawers. Three performers gather around the table: Jones, and two younger men (Jacques Gerard Colimon and Tenzin Gund-Morrow), suggesting earlier versions of himself. “Confess,” commands Gund-Morrow — the youngest, at twelve — and Jones does, sifting through the cards for family and personal memories. He describes his parents’ interracial wedding in 1968, only a year after Loving v. Virginia officially made such unions legal, and his childhood in just-barely integrated classrooms. Colimon, as a teenage Jones, perches by a record player, clutching vinyl editions of Prince and Diana Ross, and waxing poetic about the allure of a young man at school.
Woven through Jones’s confessions is a celebration of libraries themselves, as repositories of communal knowledge and sites of self-discovery. Card catalogs are, in Duat, where long-vanished people and places reside in their dusty, alphabetically arranged afterlives, awaiting rediscovery. Abruptly, a curtain drops, and we’re plunged briefly into a true afterworld: a surreal, greenish place in which performers garbed as Egyptian deities sing and dance ceremonially.
The combination of this striking Egyptian imagery with Jones’s memories — which summon both a deeply personal past, and the larger history of queer black identity — is the best part of Duat. Jones calls his artistic and spiritual philosophy “Afromysticism,” and it’s a unique, heady mix, a testament to the power of fusing old forms into new rituals for the theater. (Plus, who doesn’t adore a shout-out to the heroism of public librarians?)
In the play’s second half, we find ourselves in a public-school classroom presided over by “teacher” Jomama Jones, the playwright’s drag alter ego (as Jomama Jones, the artist stages concerts and happenings, including 2011’s Radiate, also produced by Soho Rep). A group of students, played by a multi-aged ensemble, is rehearsing a horticulturally themed school pageant, and each must choose a flower to embody. The youngest (Gund-Morrow) struggles, unsure what type of flower he is, while Jones, with the aid of the school librarian, provides benevolent counsel.
This loopy ritual of youth and self-discovery is both delightfully fantastical and, at times, repetitive, missing the first half’s archaeological specificity. Still, we get the sense this repetition is deliberate: Becoming yourself takes time, and what better way to do it than through communal rituals celebrating past and future — combined with, maybe, a visit to your local library.
By Daniel Alexander Jones
220 East 4th Street
Through November 6