Jomama Jones, the “soulsonic” diva who is the alter ego of New York-based performance artist Daniel Alexander Jones, brought the spirit of Prince vividly into Penumbra Theatre Thursday night.
Dressed in a purple floor-length gown with Diana Ross-style big hair, the glam diva sang a suggestive, soulful number to the late Minnesota superstar. The original song nodded to Prince’s arrangement style, to his cadence and to his sexy playfulness, with a dramatic pause on the word “come.”
The song was one of two tributes in “Black Light,” Jones’ 90-minute cabaret-style show that is the centerpiece of Penumbra’s experimental Claude Purdy Festival. The other summoned the spirit of another recently departed Minnesotan — Laurie Carlos, the actor, director, teacher and mentor to legions of artists across the nation who is best known from Ntozake Shange’s landmark choreopoem “For Colored Girls Who’ve Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf.”
Jones delivered those numbers with a four-piece band led by nimble pianist Samora Pinderhughes, and backup singers Helga Davis and Trevor Bachman. Neither a straight theater show nor a music concert, “Black Light” looks loose and improvised on the surface. It has spoken word, music and bible-style parables drawn from Jomama’s childhood. It weaves in references to black holes, event horizons and other astrophysics phenomena.
The music itself spans genres, from Donna Summer-esque disco to Phyllis Hyman-style jazz. These head-bobbing numbers invite participation, even for shy audience members.
But equally important to this show are the stories of childhood, set in the American South, that Jomama tells between the songs. We learn of a little girl who was a math and science whiz. She got in trouble with a teacher because she and her friends loved Prince. In class one day, they took a marker to a magazine pinup poster of him and circled parts that each claimed, dividing him up like Europe claimed Africa.
Then there’s Jomama’s aunt, a seemingly odd woman with one useful arm, who slept until noon. As the show rolls along we learn her heroic back story.
Although “Black Light” is not political on its surface, Jomama explains at one point that in the African-American tradition, to be a witness is not to simply be a spectator, but to be active, whether you’re watching an accident or “a soft coup.”
The show functions more as a healing tonic, offering soulful reassurance and helping to center listless souls.
Ultimately, “Black Light” is a metaphor about the power of the imagination. Artists like to say that art is the lie that you use to get to the truth. In Jones’ case, his storytelling art is not so much a lie as a dream — one that confronts fear and fright with a show radiating gorgeous light.