By Martha Wade Steketee
“What if I told you it’s going to be alright? … What if I told you it began tonight?”
Somewhere on a continuum that includes Machine Dazzle’s shimmery costumes adorning the performance pyrotechnics of Taylor Mac and the languid women characters crafted by drag artist Charles Busch, rests the deep ease and gentle grace of Jomama Jones, the female performance persona of theater creator Daniel Alexander Jones. Black Light, starring Jomama and her musician “Vibrations” at Joe’s Pub, is part memoir, part fairy tale, part history lesson, part song cycle, and pure entertainment.
First, is it “her” or is it “him”? For Jomama the pronoun question is easily dispatched and old-fashioned. Actor and creator Daniel Alexander Jones is male, and his stage creation is female. Jomama’s performance will be addressed with female pronouns for the balance of this commentary.
We’re provided a playbill with artist names and roles, no set list, dramaturgical essays, and performer bios, our first hint that the show will land in that yeasty middle ground of many Joe’s Pub performances in which music morphs with text and production values into a result that’s part play and part cabaret. Ethan Lipton’s The Outer Space ran in Joe’s Pub in early 2017 with a three-person folk-klezmer Orchestra with whom Lipton sang and interacted in a song cycle with text. Black Light is a similar riff on form. Where Lipton hangs his tunes on a story of a middle-aged human couple and their many relationships with each other and with their community that happens to be in an outer space colony, Jones speaks of trips to her Aunt Cleotha in the American South of the 1960s and 1970s, and life lessons from a high school science teacher that teach her to honor the spirits, pay attention to history, and to feel all her feelings.
Tunes with a rock-and-roll feel range from “Blacklight” by Jones and Josh Quat and a number by Jones and Bobby Halvorson that include “Need in Me,” “Gabriel’s Horn,” “Joy” as homage to Prince, “Seeds,” and “Supernova.” These tunes fully utilize the full-throated rock sensibilities of musicians Josh Quat on guitar, Sean Dixon on drums, Tariq Al-Sabir on piano, and Michelle Marie Osbourne on bass.
“Shattered” (Jones and Halvorson) and its final lyric “all illusions shatter” and “Crossroads” (Jones and Meek) and its final lyric “I think you are magic,” each performed with a single accompanying musician, are special highlights for this ballad-loving audience member.
Two adorable and beautifully-voiced young men, Trevor Bachman and Vuyo Sotashe, move and sing with Jomana to flesh out the life of her stories, and to provide musical entertainment for her numerous and elegantly executed changes of gorgeous and flexible costumes designed by Oana Botez. Jomama transitions from a bluish-purplish creation to a gold jumpsuit to a warm creamy long dress that frames her performance of “Crossroads” – and that’s only the beginning of the fashion show! The expertly executed costume layers reveal undercurrents, unfurled in fabric, that frame both Jomama’s lanky and languid physique and her song-filled story telling.
And the title of the show? Yes, lighting designer Ania Parks utilizes black lights (wear some bits of white clothing to see yourself glow during key sections of the show), and there are high school science lessons about black holes. There are many references to boundaries and barriers and embracing the unknown. And there are life lessons offered by Aunt Cleotha, who stayed up late nights to keep a watchful eye on her property lines. To her young niece, Aunt Cleotha explained that “you look into the dark long enough, all manner of things will be revealed.”
In life and in Jomama’s art we find love in truth and light in darkness.
Photos: Joan Marcus
Black Light, runs through March 25, 2018 at Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater (425 Lafayette Street).