Possessed by "Soul Train" memories, Daniel Alexander Jones becomes Jomama.
During the final rehearsal before the New York run of "Radiate" last year, Daniel Alexander Jones was panicked. Usually, when he performed as Jomama Jones, a leggy '80s-era disco star of his own creation, Jones would disappear within himself, allowing himself to become inhabited by his character, even possessed. That day, however, the spirit of Jomama was nowhere to be found.
"I was like, 'Where is she?'" Jones recalled. Five minutes before curtain on opening night, Jomama finally deigned to show up. "It's like she entered my body."
Jones asked, out loud, where she had been. "And I heard in my head, 'I don't do rehearsal.'"
The way Jones talks about her, it's easy to forget that Jomama Jones is not a real music legend, with a history and a personality. But in a way, she is. "I'm not the one making the choices about how the thing gets played," said Jones. "It's the weirdest experience. It's like I go back into a corner and I watch the whole thing. I don't even feel like an actor."
Through Sunday at Pillsbury House Theatre, Jomama stars in "Radiate Live!" -- a faux-comeback tour that would befit any real-life "Soul Train" star.
Jones began performing the character in the mid-'90s when he was living in Minneapolis, working with the Penumbra Theatre and as a Jerome Fellow at the Playwrights' Center. In Jomama's first cabaret appearance, Jones did a skit in which Jomama received a "Soul Train" lifetime achievement award. It was meant to be a one-off number at Patrick's Cabaret, but Jones knew right away that the disco diva inside wasn't done with him.
He spent the next two years developing the act, but put it aside in 1997 to make room for his other work as a playwright, director and theater professor at Fordham University in New York City. He carved out a living for himself, but in 2009, Jones felt like his career was in a rut. Suddenly, more than a decade since he had last thought about her, Jomama reappeared. "She was like, 'I got this.'"
Jones teamed up with musician Bobby Halvorson to write a score in a gamut of styles, inspired by everyone from Lena Horne to Bob Dylan. He came up with a back story explaining Jomama's absence from showbiz (she was raising goats in Switzerland). The result is an interracial, gender-bending meditation on American identity, all packaged neatly in the guise of a sparkly comeback concert, complete with a full band and backup singers.
"It matches the way I saw the world and my own experience growing up with multiple identities, both racially and in terms of class and gender and sexuality," Jones said, adding that he doesn't consider Jomama a drag act. "I've always experienced drag as a kind of performance where you are conscious of the performer and the character at the same time, and here my hope is that I actually get all the way out of the way so you can be with her."
Donna Summer routines
Growing up biracial in western Massachusetts in the 1970s, Jones would memorize the music he heard on the radio -- hits by Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, Olivia Newton-John.
"I remember sitting on the floor and listening to those records and learning every note, every little ad lib, every little riff." He would act out a routine to Donna Summer's "Bad Girls," which he now admits might have been inappropriate for a 7-year-old. "You're singing about prostitution and you don't even know it."
On Saturday mornings he studied "Soul Train."
"There was something about this post-civil rights era, when everybody was on 'Soul Train,'" said Jones. "Everybody was in there dancing together. It was the cusp of the first wave of international crossovers. It was a very exciting time to see the fruit of the culture I grew up in and loved so much -- it was taking over the world."
Jomama is a character cut from that era, and the feel-good "Radiate" is inspired by the inclusiveness Jones felt watching the show as a young boy.
"Part of why I'm drawn to that era is that I just firmly believe in our capacity to be with each other across perceived differences and boundaries. And it's a belief that's grounded in the experience of having grown up with it and seen it in action. What I hope is Jomama makes a space where people feel free enough to sit in that room with that kind of invitation to be open."
Jomama will see to it that they do. The show is heavy on audience participation, with Jomama calling on audience members to answer questions, dance and even sing along. Trying to avoid eye contact won't help interaction-phobes. "She'll find you," said Jones.