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“What if I told you it was going to be alright?” asks drag performer Jomama Jones, gliding down the aisle of Joe’s Pub, votive candle in hand. Then, firmly, she adds, “What if I told you not yet?” and, more ominously, “What if I told you not all of us will make it through?”
This gentle dip from reassurance to provocation is very Jones, who appears in her new show Black Light as a benevolent, be-sequined prophet of transformation, blending personal memory with original songs to inform her audience that we stand at a crossroads — nationally and, though she doesn’t know us, probably personally as well. 2018 sure does feel like a crossroads: Will we elect a new Congress? Enact gun control? Hunker down resignedly for more of the same?
In difficult times, Jomama Jones is an artist whose company you want. A semi-fictional creation, she’s the drag alter ego of playwright and performance artist Daniel Alexander Jones, whose work melds Afromysticism, Black history, and fantastically embellished autobiography. (In his 2016 play, Duat, ancient Egyptian deities roamed the stage.) Decked out in sparkly gowns and patent-leather platforms, Jones towers affectionately over her spectators, belting out poetic ballads with the backing of two vocalists (her “vibrations”) and a four-piece band. (Musical influences include Prince and Diana Ross.)
Between songs, she dishes out two extended anecdotes about growth and change. In one, her childhood self visits a Southern aunt, initially scorning the elder relation for having a bum arm and weird nocturnal habits. Eventually, she learns that Aunt Cleotha received her injury defying a lynch mob, and that she stays up all night, flashlight and shotgun at the ready, keeping protective watch for her family. Cleotha isn’t a kook, she’s a “witness,” Jones explains, in the Black tradition’s sense of the word: someone who’s accountable for what she sees. “I stay vigilant,” Cleotha tells the young Jones, “so y’all can sleep.”
In Black Light, Jones asks of us, and demands of herself, that same kind of attention to the world. Passive observation — “as in, I was a witness to a purse snatching on Astor Place. Or, say, to a soft coup in my country” — is complicit with destruction. But Jones’s call to action is a kindly one; songs ask us to do better, to imagine ourselves as seeds ready to grow.
Her second tale recalls Prince as a catalyst for sexual awakening. In high-school science class, a teenage Jones and friends cheerfully marked up a Prince poster, circling their most-lusted-after body parts while ignoring the teacher’s assignment to diagram a black hole. The anecdote is funny and symbolic; both Prince and astrophysical vacuums form part of Jones’s emotional landscape. We are all, she says, “full of our own black holes pulling and bright stars bursting.”
Black Light lives somewhere between a cabaret act and a more expansive theatrical work, and you might ultimately wish Jones would venture farther toward the latter, keeping the lightness of touch while allowing herself more access to the ominous depths — the ways, as she says, “not all of us will make it through.” Luckily, her second vocabulary lesson gestures to this point. After redefining “witness,” she glosses the potentially saccharine signifier “imagination.” Jones is with us tonight, she says, because her enslaved ancestors imagined her, daring to envision free descendants while knowing they probably wouldn’t see freedom in their lifetimes. That’s the kind of imagination Jones asks us all to cultivate, and as she seizes her votive and swans back up the aisle, you might feel renewed inspiration to do just that.