REVIEW: Witness the "Black Light"
“What if I told you ... ?” is the watch-cry incantation of enigmatic cabaret creation Jomama Jones, star of “Black Light”, an incandescent evening of song and story—dubbed “a musical revival for turbulent times”—that opened tonight at the Public Theater.
As she makes her entrance to a chorus of ringing bells, slinking among the tight café tables of Joe’s Pub in a shimmering, sequined gown, candle as torch in hand, Jomama tells in the asking of the question in its varied permutations—“what if I told you it’s going to be alright?” “what if I told you not yet?”—unwrapping our imagination, inviting us to participate, and positing that we, at this moment in history, are at “the crossroads”.
Born from the fabulous, civic-minded imagination of performance artist Daniel Alexander Jones, his alter-ego Jomama Jones first appeared in Texas “on a frigid February night in 1996”, and made her comeback onstage at Joe’s Pub in 2010, and in the years since, incisively mining the context of her past, present, and future to explore race, identity, gender, power, history, change, and community.
Taking the stage at Joe’s Pub once more, Jomama continues this journey in “Black Light”, giving a rich and fulsome performance that shines light and shatters perception, breaking barriers between audience and performer, and producing a piece of theatre that is wickedly funny, painfully revelatory, and poignantly beautiful.
Between songs of her own composition performed with her band of “beloveds” and backed by her vocalist “vibrations”, Jomama tells stories of an 11th grade science class kerfuffle with her “best friend” Tamika involving a risqué Right On! magazine centerfold of Prince, and of summer and winter visits to her “taciturn” Aunt Cleotha’s down south where she befriends a chicken named Penny and confronts ghosts of Jim Crow.
In both story tracks, Jomama learns lessons about giving herself permission to feel her feelings and becoming a living witness to life—taking responsibility—instead of a passive observer. “If you look into the dark long enough, all manner of things will be revealed,” she says. Rich in meaning and message, its politics pointed but poetic, “Black Light” is about learning to see in the dark, facing the crossroads of life, choosing a path, changing, becoming, with the weight of history and the lift of imagined future as fuel.
In an evening awash in metaphor and symbol, perhaps the most enduring image is that of the supernova, the exploded star, destruction whose elements seed creation. Jomama wonders whether something has to die for something to be born, and if, at this crossroad, it might be the death of an idea, a story, a nation, that gives us the darkness we need to reveal a path, a birth, something new, the future—dawn.
The Public Theater’s Artistic Director Oskar Eustis says “for those of us who don’t have a church tradition, we’re lucky to have Jomama”. And he is right. In “Black Light”, we are challenged to bear witness and offer both mental and spiritual participation. Heady for a cabaret act, but perfectly calibrated for these “turbulent times”. The songs pay loving homage to the iconic musical idiom of Prince; the lyrics are dense, more poem than musical verse, which is unfortunate because the big ideas and thoughtful connections that abound in this taut cabaret act of a show cannot be fully appreciated in real time.
Jomama Jones emerged before John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig Robinson, the transgender East German rocker, but both women, alter-egos, are enduring characters of wisdom and mystery who are larger than life and, yet, oh so real.
“What if I told you I’m from the future?”, Jomama asks. I’d believe it.
Bottom Line: “Black Light”, an incandescent evening of song and story, stars performance artist Daniel Alexander Jones as his alter-ego, the enigmatic cabaret creation Jomama Jones; rich in meaning and message, its politics pointed but poetic, “Black Light” is a wickedly funny, painfully revelatory, and poignantly beautiful exploration of race, identity, gender, power, history, change, and community that is perfectly calibrated for these turbulent times. Catch this show if you can.
at the Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street
New York, NY 10003
Running Time: 90 minutes (no intermission)
Opening Night: February 25, 2018
Final Performance: March 25, 2018