Who is Jomama Jones, the rooted and radiant soul diva whose show Black Light, which premiered at Joe’s Pub in the spring, has reemerged downtown for a run at the Greenwich House Theater? According to her Playbill bio, she’s “a soul sonic superstar” who “began her career as a young R&B songstress in the early 1980s, covering Jet Magazine, Right On!, and Black Beat … before departing the U.S. for personal and political reasons.” In 2010 she made her comeback, performing her album Lone Star at Joe’s Pub and following it up with three more albums, a national tour, and two appearances at Soho Rep. She currently splits her time between Switzerland, New York, and L.A., and raises goats.
She’s also a creation of the performance artist Daniel Alexander Jones, and in her case, the words “alter ego” suddenly resound with their full depth of meaning. Jomama isn’t a costume or a cabaret act: She is Jones’s other self. She’s got history, biography, experiences, opinions, collaborators, and friends — not to mention a glowing, piercing stage presence and an incantatory voice. In Black Light, along with two fellow singers and a fine onstage band led by Tariq Al-Sabir, she interweaves stories from her own life with searching songs of conjuration and conviction. The stories ring with such playful, painful, honest nuance that I found myself thinking of the paradox of those women in Shakespeare plays who put on men’s clothing and perform a new identity: Sometimes, disguise unveils the deeper truth.
“What if I told you it’s going to be all right?” Jomama’s velvet voice asks us out of the warm darkness, bells tinkling and a single blue candle glowing, at the beginning of Black Light. Then: “What if I told you … not yet?” Jones’s show — subtitled “A musical revival for turbulent times” — hangs in the space between reassurance and warning, between the belief in empathy, generosity, and transformation, and the acknowledgement of the brutal road behind us and the long one ahead. It balances on a threshold — or, in Jomama’s words, “at the crossroads.” It’s a mythic, mystic location, “a place of choosing” where gods are called upon, histories are reckoned with, and futures prophesied. It’s also a space of contradiction, of knowing and not knowing, seeing and not seeing. The show’s title resonates with a sense of both-and fullness, as well as serving as a manifesto. Black light is exactly what Jomama radiates. It’s what she’s come to speak for and how she fills the room.
Under Tea Alagić’s assured direction, Jones and his band perform songs across a range of styles, from the vibrant, soulful title number and the sensual, mischievous “Joy” — arising from teenage Jomama’s body-and-soul-quaking response to the artist known as Prince — to the driving, hard-edged “Gabriel’s Horn.” “I have always struggled with what to do with my rage,” Jomama admits, “where to put it, how to use it.” “Gabriel’s Horn” provides one answer, as well as a defiant rejoinder to the punk-obsessed white boys at Jomama’s high school who taunted her and her friends with sneers of “Disco sucks!” (“It sucked because it had nothing to do with them,” Jomama says with an arched eyebrow.) In true high-diva style, Jomama works in several costume changes, slipping away only to return in a new assembly of shimmering sequins by designer Oana Botez. She and her golden-voiced backup singers (Trevor Bachman and Vuyo Sotashe, whom she calls her “vibrations”) can get up close and personal with us in Gabe Evansohn’s set, with its moonlit art nouveau vibe and cabaret tables for audience members, wrapped in jewel-toned beams and rich shadows by lighting designers Ania Parks and Michael Cole.
A great part of Black Light’s efficacy is that it opens us up with its generous, glamorous tone. Jomama’s sense of humor and her sense of beauty, as well as her gift for a good story, are the open hand she extends to us, and when we take it, she’s able to lead us down some hard paths. As she winds the story of her great-aunt Cleotha throughout the show, we learn exactly what it means to “be a witness,” as she has asked of us early on. “I’m not talking about a passive observer,” Jomama advises us. “As in ‘I was a witness to a purse snatching … Or to a soft coup in my country.’ No, no, no…” Jomama asks for us to join her as witnesses in the black American tradition, “which means you take responsibility for what you see. You put your back into it!” Black Light asks us to consider how we watch and how we listen, and it positions those simple, personal acts as powerful. In a moment in which it’s the easiest thing in the world to feel utterly powerless — to feel minuscule and desolate in the face of so many entrenched, cancerous systems — Jomama demands that we consider each moment a choice, a crossroads at which we take a next step, determining how to move through the world, how to treat others, how to live.
As Jomama began “See Things (As They Are)” — her final song in a show that had taken us from black holes to the deep South, from the ecstasies of Prince to the horrors of both our present and our past — I thought of another show that finds its power through storytelling, that argues for a future shaped by conscious acts of listening, recognition, and empathy. I bring up What the Constitution Means to Me, not to get into the dubious territory of comparing a black artist to a white artist, but to hold up the work of both these extraordinary writers and performers — Daniel Alexander Jones and Heidi Schreck — as examples of a kind of political theater that manages to merge the raised fist with the open palm. Jomama invites us to see her, to witness her, and to go from Black Light back out into daylight with our senses somehow both sharpened and softened: more able to hear others, more able to see ourselves.
Black Light is at the Greenwich House Theater through December 31.