Beyond Vassar

Artist as Integrator: Daniel Alexander Jones '91

By Elizabeth Randolph
Jones, right, with actor Jacques Colimon in An Integrator's Manual.
Jones, right, with actor Jacques Colimon in An Integrator's Manual.

Interdisciplinary theater artist and educator Daniel Alexander Jones ’91 is an integrator. It’s a role he says was “almost inevitable,” having grown up with Civil Rights–era parents in Springfield, Massachusetts, a multiracial and multi-ethnic enclave where he says there was “a radical inclusion across race, class, and gender.”

“It was a challenge to step outside that community and to come to terms with a different worldview, one I would later come to understand as dominant,” he says, “but I’ve always kept that torch alive in my heart.”

He has kept it alive in his work, too, challenging himself and audiences to examine—and dismantle—previously held assumptions about themselves and each other. As an associate professor of theater at Fordham University and head of the playwriting program, he encourages his students to do the same.

In one of his most recent performance pieces, An Integrator’s Manual, performed in New York City and Austin, Texas, he explores what he sees as the failure of integration in the U.S.

“A lot of [the show] has to do with questions of American identity—and race, particularly,” he says. “I felt a real need to respond in some small way to the horror that we’ve been finding ourselves in over the last year and a half around police violence and race.”

In the piece, Jones is played by doppelgänger Jacques Colimon, and Jones plays his own eternal soul. Together, they mix autobiographical details with an ancient Egyptian myth to examine how the forces of chaos can unravel justice. “What are the implications of [integration’s] failure for my generation? How do we reconcile the losses with our best intentions? And, frankly, how do we let go of what no longer serves us?” Jones asks.

Jomama Jones reads audience members' wishes during a show.
Jomama Jones reads audience members' wishes during a show.

Many of his other pieces have centered on his persona Jomama Jones, a figure with Diana Ross–like glamour and a backstory that reflects both the state of the country and, at times, Jones’s state of mind.

“Jomama showed up fully formed when I was 25 years old,” Jones recalls. “I was working on a performance piece, and she took me over.” He imagined her as “a hot, young thing in the early 1980s, a singer and performer who was very much a part of the moment in which there was a real flourishing of black music,” a time when performers such as Melba Moore, Evelyn King, Diana Ross, Dionne Warwick, Aretha Franklin, and Michael Jackson dominated the charts.

“Those were halcyon days,” he says. “There was a glamour, dignity, and humor to the music, and there seemed to be fruit on the tree,” but things soured for the character when her record company began to pressure her to tone down her rhetoric, which reflected her “profound dissatisfaction” with Reagan-era politics. She chose instead to leave the country.

“There was a gap between 1997 and 2008 when I didn’t perform her,” says Jones. “But she came back into my life at a point of real personal crisis—one of those dark nights of the soul as a human being, teacher, and artist. The first thing she said to me was, ‘It’s my time! Give me the reins!’”

She’s been reigning ever since, using her humor, vocal talent, and gender-fluid razzle-dazzle to engage audiences on topics that normally set people on edge. Reviewing Jomama’s first “postexile” show, Radiate, New York Times arts critic David Rooney described her as “part Teena Marie, part Maya Angelou, sharing spiritual wisdom and cosmic insights.”

“As a character, she came back into the world at the start of the Obama presidency,” says Jones. “So it’s been very interesting to ride that wave with her in the material, to see an evolution from hope to disappointment to a sober view in the face of what seem to be intractable political differences, while she’s also trying to bring forth a message of community building.”

Jones has performed Radiate all over the country, in venues large and small, with audiences across class, race, gender, and sexuality. At one point in the piece, Jomama asks audience members to anonymously write down something they wish for. Partway through—without the audience knowing they are going to do so—the cast reads back the cards.

Jones says, “People wish for all sorts of things—world peace, a cat, a cure for a family member who is ill. Or they make beautiful wishes for their children. Every now and then someone will wish for a million dollars, but 95 to 96 percent of the thousands of wishes we have read from all over the country have been altruistic in nature and deeply hopeful. It’s indicated to me that there’s a deep desire for something generous and generative in the hearts of everyday people, though we may not be talking about it openly.”

Jones may well have wished for a tidy sum of money to continue his work. He is one of 20 performing artists recently honored with a 2015 Doris Duke Performing Artist Award. Each artist will receive $275,000 in flexible, multiyear funding from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation as an “investment in and celebration of their ongoing contributions to the fields of contemporary dance, theatre, and jazz.”

The prize will enable Jones to complete a new album called Flowering this summer and to build a new full-length performance piece around the material for Jomama. He wants to run that show in repertory with An Integrator’s Manual. He sees them as two sides of a coin—the former addresses “the shadow side of ourselves,” he says, and the latter will explore our “potential to make new language and perhaps make a leap of faith with one another into a different way of being with our history.”

He’d also like to bring his new musical, Bright Now Beyond, created with composer Bobby Halvorson and featuring Jomama, to New York City for a “longer, bigger life.” (The piece had a small-scale production with director Will Davis and actor Colimon at the Salvage Vanguard Theater in Austin, Texas, in March.)
The work is based on The Marvelous Land of Oz, the lesser-known book in L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz series. Set several years after the events in Wizard, the tale follows a young boy on a hero’s journey during which he meets familiar characters—the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Glinda—as well as new ones.

“Along the way, they realize that something is broken,” says Jones. “There’s the sense that Oz is a little bit in crisis. Which made me think of our time right now.”

Refining Flowering, Bright Now Beyond, and An Integrator’s Manual will take up the next few years of his life—and Jones is happy about that, especially since he gets to work with so many fine performers, musicians, directors—and audiences—in the process.

“When people come to see a piece or to help make a piece, they’re being vulnerable. They’re giving of their time, their attention, and their creative essence,” he says. “What has been foundational for me is the understanding that a piece of art that I make actually doesn’t belong to me. It may be coming through me initially but it belongs to the people who are going to be making it with me and then to the people I’m sharing it with.”