For this special preview episode, we invited CNP’s 2020/21 Resident Artist Daniel Alexander Jones to meet up with two next-generation artists and students at CalArts.
In January 2020, CalArts Center for New Performance's 2020-21 Resident Artist Daniel Alexander Jones met up with two next-generation artists and students at CalArts—performer/playwright Sarahjeen François and designer/performance artist Amy Chiao.
A critically acclaimed playwright, essayist, performer and musician, Jones goes deep into Black American and Queer Performance traditions, exploring the power of Afromysticism and demonstrating an unwavering commitment to healing, compassionate truth-telling, and collective critical engagement.
For more information on the artists in today's episode, please visit:
Daniel Alexander Jones (00:00):
(Music: "Brightly Shining" by Jomama Jones plays under Daniel's speech) My hope is that the younger generation can imagine us together. Can imagine us together and can do the work of telling the stories and creating the circumstances to practice that togetherness. I am fearful of separation and segregation because I've seen what it does in my own lifetime. And I think it is ultimately in the service of the thing it's trying to correct, which is this larger, ultimately white supremacist structure.
Marissa Chibas (01:12):
(Music: Podcast theme song) Welcome to the CalArts Center for New Performance, where we follow the artist. Our new podcast is a place where visionary artists lead us into creative dialogue and discuss generous acts of world making. I'm your host, Marissa Chibas, speaking to you from our home at California Institute of the Arts where for almost five decades a community of artists has come together to break ground and break bread while pushing the limits of the artistic practices. For this very special first edition, we invited the CalArts Center for New Performance's current resident artist, Daniel Alexander Jones, to meet up with two next generation artists and students at CalArts. Performer and playwright, Sarahjeen François and Amy Chiao, designer, actor and performance artist. In numerous, critically acclaimed plays, essays, performances, music concerts, and recordings, Daniel Alexander Jones goes deep into Black American and queer performance traditions, exploring the power of Afromysticism and demonstrating an unwavering commitment to healing, often appearing as his alter ego, the loving and lovely chanteuse, Jomama Jones.
Marissa Chibas (02:44):
Daniel uses his vulnerable presence and his compassionate truth-telling to gather his audience in collective critical engagement. An alumnus of New Dramatists, Daniel's honors, he is the recipient of the Alpert Award in the Arts, a Guggenheim and a USA Artist Fellowship, and the Doris Duke Artist Award among many others, reflect his stature as a great American theater artist. As Daniel says, energy is his true medium. Today we share that radiant energy with you.
Amy Chiao (03:26):
Hello, fellow listeners. My name is Amy Chiao and I am a student at CalArts, currently an MFA first year in set design in the theater department.
Sarahjeen François (03:38):
And I am Sarahjeen François, I am an MFA three actor at CalArts in the theater department. And I am also a playwright, a Haitian-American playwright, and I am interested in Afro mythic.
Daniel Alexander Jones (03:54):
Hi, so happy to be here with you.
Amy Chiao (03:58):
Yeah, we're so excited.
Daniel Alexander Jones (03:59):
Very happy to be here too.
Sarahjeen François (04:00):
So what are you working on now? Tell us about-
Daniel Alexander Jones (04:03):
Yeah. Well, I'm working on a lot of stuff and I think that... What I would say is that for your audience, I live in a very interesting intersection between what we might think about as traditional theater, making work that might show up in a theater or a playhouse or a space that you might think of as a traditional site for work and a whole lot of other stuff that might bridge performance art, that might bridge community building, that might bridge music performance and then increasingly also engages just conversation and interaction with people. So I'm right now working on the very first stages of a new performance project that I think is going to live in a number of different ways over the next two to three years. So I've been doing a lot of research and being in the dream time which I think is an important place to be, to sit with the thing before it even has formed.
Daniel Alexander Jones (05:10):
That's one. Number two, I'm having a book of my plays and performance pieces from the last 25 years is going to be published this year by 53rd State Press. And that's the first time I've published a big chunk of my work. So I'm doing edits on that, which is really exciting. And then finally, I've been writing a kind of hybrid memoir that also... Memoir meets talking about theater practice, art practice that focuses on my relationship with mentors that I've had over the years. And most of them were really radical avant-garde experimental Black feminist artists. And so I'm writing the book in part to introduce readers to people. Many of them are no longer living and I want to link what I always do to a tradition, because I'm not original, I'm in a tradition, I'm participating in it and extending it in my own way. But that book has been three years in the making and now I've got to do revisions on it. So I'm doing a lot, you know?
Amy Chiao (06:21):
What do you mean by when you say you're not an original?
Daniel Alexander Jones (06:22):
Meaning that I don't view what I do as being something that came or generates from me. I believe that I'm participating in a beautiful, long, rich, cultural practice. And while what I might make is distinct, I'm not building a new wheel, I'm rolling that wheel forward in my own way, shape and form, right? And it's important because I think that's actually part of what I have always felt. The richness of what I think about as Black American culture is that it is a participatory culture that gets opened and changed by everybody who makes inside of it. But no one person can lay claim to originating it. And I think the idea of originating something is actually a colonial thought. And what's real is that we all participate in something with one another and we can revel and we can delight in that and we can celebrate. There's nobody who's going to write an act like you, there's nobody who's going to design like you, but writing, acting and design are not your creation, right? So if we let go of that idea, so much more seems possible to me. So I talked a long time, so.
Amy Chiao (07:37):
No, that was great.
Sarahjeen François (07:40):
Tell us how you're connected to CalArts and CNP.
Daniel Alexander Jones (07:44):
Okay. First of all I love CalArts. In 2006, I was so fortunate as to be named an Alpert Award recipient in theater. And as part of that experience, I had an opportunity to come out and do a residency here at CalArts. And it was so beautiful to meet the students and to meet many of the faculty members. And I kind of fell instantly in sync with the energy of CalArts because it fit kind of my what I think of is, I'll call "my crazy." I was like, "This I get, this I understand." And to walk in a building and someone's playing a cello while someone else is painting on the floor and then someone else is kind of rolling around in a canvas sack and then there's somebody else breaking apart a poem. And I said that kind of vital embodied creativity is important.
Amy Chiao (08:40):
We saw on your website, you were called an artist shaman. Can you explain what that means to you and to other people?
Daniel Alexander Jones (08:50):
What it means to me, yeah. So there was a very beautiful statement that was made about me by someone I really respect and I'm very honored to be called that. I don't know that I would call myself that, but what I have come to understand and this is 25 years of making work professionally now, is that my true medium is energy, what I'm really working with this energy. So whatever I'm doing as a writer, or a director, or a performer or a divisor, ultimately what I'm doing is trying to shape the way that energy moves to invite energy to move in a room. To think about the fact that we are all energetic beings, we're vibratory beings. And so on some level, there's a way you could skew it and talk about physics, and there's a way that you could skew it and talk about shamanism.
Daniel Alexander Jones (09:46):
And so I would just say that the thing I'm most conscious of in the room is that there are rites, there are ceremonies, there are ritual practices that we tap into that are of the theater. Some of them are of everyday life, and some of them belong to traditions that might be considered as spiritual traditions. But when I'm working, I'm thinking about those things. Because what I'm most interested in is creating an energetic experience that more often than not engages a question of transformation. So I think what happens for people who come to see my work is it very quickly becomes apparent that they may have thought they were coming to see a show, but what they're coming to is a ceremony. Whoever the people are that have come to be in the room, your presence is particular and important in the moment that you're there. And in my work that's central. I am never making a work to be consumed by an anonymous audience ever. That is not my thing.
Amy Chiao (11:05):
So when it translates to documentation or film, how does that change your... Because you can't work with the energy of the audience, you're performing for a camera often in music videos. How does that affect your feeling, your experience when you're performing?
Daniel Alexander Jones (11:23):
In those ways I think because that medium is slightly different, what I'm hoping to do is to make something that's a seed that will open in the person later. And I think that this is true of a lot of literature as well, that you're crafting something that you're hoping somebody will be haunted by. They take it away and it goes, and it opens up later for them, it weaves into their day. But I do not think those, the media are not the same. Which is why I think I'm really ultimately, no matter how I've tried to break out of it, I really am a performer. You know? And I think it's because I love that energy.
Sarahjeen François (12:27):
Okay. Let's talk about Jomama Jones. She is fabulous. (Music: "Revelation" by Jomama Jones) How would you introduce Jomama Jones to a new audience?
Daniel Alexander Jones (12:37):
Yeah. She is for me, if I were to introduce an alter ego and I say alter ER but also AR, right? She has a spirit energy on her, so-
Amy Chiao (12:50):
I love that. Did you come up with that?
Daniel Alexander Jones (12:53):
Daniel Alexander Jones (12:58):
That's who she is. And I really feel at the risk of sounding woo-woo, I channel her, she comes through. Now, I can think of her as a higher aspect of my own vibration, I can think of her as an energy that comes from without, but that comes through me. But she is distinct from me. And who she is, she is a singer, she is a grand diva, she is a teacher. Many people have called her a kind of high priestess that she functions in that way. And she's also very funny. She's real, is the best way I can say. And she also is just fabulous. I always joke I'm like, "I'm really the boring cousin." Like people are, "I don't know why he's here. Where is she?" And there's something about her, people will do anything she asks her to do.
Sarahjeen François (13:53):
We were talking about Afromysticism, and I have an idea of what it is, but I would love for you to tell us what it means to you.
Daniel Alexander Jones (14:03):
Yeah. So this term is interesting. I as someone who's been fascinated with Afrofuturism for years and years and years and when Jomama was having her come back, it was one of the easiest ways to kind of talk about her was to talk about Afrofuturism. And I link Afrofuturism... We go all the way back to Du Bois and all way pre Harlem Renaissance. But I always think about it as like LaBelle. In Patti LaBelle, Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash and their silver space suits, and Parliament-Funkadelic. And this explosion exactly in the 60s and 70s of these artists who linked space and the idea of futurity to the Civil Rights Movement. What has happened since and this is a generalization and a distillation and some of the Afrofuturist people and definitely of Afro pessimists would come in stab me for saying this, but I feel like there's been a dystopian cast to Afrofuturism that we're...
Daniel Alexander Jones (15:10):
There's that famous quote that Martin Luther King met Nichelle Nichols who played her Uhura on Star Trek. And he said, "You have to stay on Star Trek," because she was debating whether to leave the show. Because he said, "We need you in our future. We need to imagine you in the future." So there's that idea which I love, but then there's this sense of it being linked to the obvious violences and the persistence of oppressions that we're encountering. And I was like, "Is Jo talking about that specific? What is she doing? What am I doing? And am I doing that?" And what occurred to me is that there's something closer to the experience that I have when I think about those artists that I studied as a young person, not in a formal way, but just life study. Like Alice Coltrane, John Coltrane who were searching for something about the meaning of the cosmos. There was an ontological inquiry that they were making. What is this, what are we? What is this reality? Is this reality?
Daniel Alexander Jones (16:32):
What are the capacities of human beings? What does culture mean in relationship to our capacity? And what does it mean when we consider the physics of the universe and the idea of an expanding universe, the idea of a constantly accelerating universe? And to me, I always think about, and I'm speaking specifically about Black American history and culture, that we have always imagined what couldn't be. We've always imagined beyond the boundaries of what we've known. And what happened for me is that I was like, "This isn't only about the future. It's about the past, it's about the future, it's about now, it's about a kind of field of time." And that the dance with time is actually multivalent, it goes in every direction. And so when we think of mysticism, we, in some ways think about the presence of the divine, the numinous, but I'm also thinking about the ability to start to see things from a different perspective, that is a much bigger and broader perspective. And I was like, "That's what those artists did." And I really think that's what I'm following. And that's a tradition I'm following it.
Sarahjeen François (17:49):
How does Jomama move through the patriarchy and racism in today's society?
Daniel Alexander Jones (17:57):
It's a very challenging thing for me and definitely for a lot of people that I talk about this with. To fully understand the patriarchy and to understand racism, systemic, culturally imbricated, as constructs, to understand that they were made and that we precede them. Life precedes them, the world, the earth precedes them. The damage they have brought is incalculable. We are living in the brute and of the damage they brought, but they're not the truth. They are the reality we're in, but they're not the truth. And so the thing that she brings is the embodiment of that awareness that these things we're dealing with are constructs that have real and deadly consequences, but they aren't the truth. And I think the great danger is when we begin to relate to them as the truth. We begin to shape our consciousness to shape our dreams or lack thereof, to shape our agency or lack thereof in relationship to these constructs.
Daniel Alexander Jones (19:27):
They're hella real. You know what I mean? Again, I'm not in any way, shape or form minimizing them, but it's like we can draw on a millennia of experience that existed before the advent of these structures. And it's very important to do that. And I often think about this, where are we sourcing our language from? Where are we sourcing our constructs from when we start to talk about these things? Because the thing that I understand is that this system functions by flattening us. By turning us into binary code, right? Making us something that can be read and cataloged and bought and sold. So a lot of this goes back to the auction block, right? A lot of this goes back to that kind of the reduction of a human being and everything that Jomama about, is about the radical expansion of a human being, which does not in any way, shape or form erase culture.
Daniel Alexander Jones (20:39):
It doesn't erase the experience of gender. In fact, it makes more space for it. It demands more space, but it also demands the recognition of shifting and change. And that's a big part of it. So I think she's definitely a warrior and she comes a long of people still call these things out, but in a way she's most interested in, well, who are we? Who are you? Who are you? And what you going to do? Who are you? And what you going to do? What are we going to do? Because there's reaction, which is response, but then there's creation. What are we going to create?
Sarahjeen François (22:23):
That's the question.
Daniel Alexander Jones (22:23):
That's the question.
Sarahjeen François (22:27):
(Music: "Shattered" by Jomama Jones) So we were talking about Afromysticism and I work with the Afro-Mythic. I'm working on a play called Louverture, which is about the Haitian revolution. I make his wife, the main character, and I make her the revolutionary. And in this world I introduce Aida and Dumballa, which are like some Haitian and Benise Vodun deities, laws. It's kind of like reaching out to the ancestors. And I use that as a way to connect. I use African music and dance as a way to connect. And so I guess I want to know what role Afromysticism plays in the process of creating your work.
Daniel Alexander Jones (23:09):
Mm-hmm (affirmative) Beautiful. First of all, I'm going to read this piece or see it, hear it. I want to hear, I want to be in the room when you share it. There's a beautiful line that I always go back to in Julie Dash's film Daughters of the Dust, I don't know if you all know that film. But there's a moment where the grandmother in that film is reflecting on the ways in which the ancestors talk to us. And she's in a particular conundrum because her children ain't paying her no mind, and her grandchildren, they're not doing what she says to do, right? And so she says essentially like those old ancestors, she said, "They'll come to you when you least expect them. They're going to come and sweep you up like the wind." The way that the ancestors work in my work is number one, I'm always in active dialogue with individual ancestors from my own journey, whether that be family members or these mentors who are no longer here or historical figures that I've had deep connection with. And what I've come to understand through my life experience is that those people, in a way, are symbols themselves of principles that are older and deeper than them.
Amy Chiao (24:38):
So what would your dream social space or system to practice your work in-
Daniel Alexander Jones (24:44):
My dream space is sort of like the spaces I grew up in, which is the idea of a kind of community center. And I've been fortunate enough in my life to work in theaters that have that relationship, two in particular in the Twin Cities, Penumbra Theatre Company, which is one of the oldest sort of continuously running Black American theater companies in the States and Pillsbury House Theatre company, both of them are in community centers. They are fully functioning Equity theaters inside of community centers. And so what I love, a memory from Pillsbury House that I'll share with you. One time I was working on a piece there and they have an open door rehearsal policy. So anybody who's in that center can come sit and watch the rehearsals. And these three little girls who were there for summer camp came in and they sat in the back and they watched, and they would come back every day for like a week. 10 days they're there watching us work. And at some point, I said, "Well, I'm going to change this here so that this happens here and she goes over there.
Daniel Alexander Jones (25:58):
"Mm-mm" (negative). The little girl back there says, and I was like "what?" And she says "she wouldn't do that." And I say, "Excuse me?" She said, "Because in the other part, she said, dah dah dah dah," and she said she wouldn't do that, and then her friend was like, "No, she wouldn't." And I was like okay. And I said-
Amy Chiao (26:14):
They were middle schoolers?
Daniel Alexander Jones (26:15):
Amy Chiao (26:15):
Daniel Alexander Jones (26:17):
No, younger. They were maybe sixth grade. And my people they were like, "They're right." I was like, they were the best dramaturgs. And so to me, that energy where there's a porousness about the work, I think there's great value A in you being poorest to the community that you're working with, and also the community that you're working with getting to be witness to process. There's something about... More often than not, and this again is coming from growing up in these centers, my mom's said something that sticks with me since she said it to me. She said, "if I'm happy, meaning if I'm okay, if I've got my needs, I always feel that I'm becoming something else. I'm transforming into something else." And I'm like "that, right there!"
Daniel Alexander Jones (27:26):
So I think the great lie that gets told about people, especially people in this country is that "people aren't curious." People are profoundly curious. People want to know what are we doing? Who are you, where'd you come from? What are you doing? What is that thing? And there can be a little bit of like, "What are you talking about? Performance art. What is that"? But if I'm willing to be soft enough to say, "You know what? I don't even know sometimes what this thing is, but I know I'm supposed to do it," and then invite somebody into the conversation and then also be willing to hear from them and to be in conversation with them, you know? Because those little girls, that was their play. That was their play.
Amy Chiao (28:20):
In a theater, like a stage, there's hierarchy. But when you're in the open space-
Daniel Alexander Jones (28:27):
And that, to me, that hierarchy part. Now imagine, I like beauty and I'm a type A, I like things to be tight, but that is different than being highfalutin about something. I don't think it's "better than" I want it to be tight. I'm not making work to be celebrated for making something that's "brilliant." I don't care. I'm making work because I want to share an idea and be in communion with people about that idea. And so if the mechanisms by which that experience is created and delivered, get in the way of that, so if there's first of all, an edifice that does not welcome you in. If there is a price that is too high to pay, if there is a distance to travel that is too far to go, if there is, when you walk into that space, a sense that you are an other, whether that be about race, gender, sexuality, class, whatever ability.
Daniel Alexander Jones (29:39):
If there is this formality of, "I'm observing something from a distance in the dark, and I'm looking at it over there." All of these things are in the way. They are in the way. One of the places that was the most welcoming to me as an artist and that I ended up building a lot of work with was Joe's Pub at The Public Theater, which is a cabaret space. And essentially, you can eat there, it's a kind of bar. It's a low price point. The stage is so tight that people just leave the stage. You're just in the room with folks. And with the piece that we built, Black Light, the leadership at the time and I, we worked so hard to make sure that there would not be an economic barrier to entry and that we made deliberate outreach to have people bring people who wouldn't normally come and welcome them and make experiences so that it was like if you wanted to be there, you could be there. (Music from "Black Light")
Sarahjeen François (31:10):
You were talking about the next generation of artists. What do you hope to see from them, from the next generation of artists? What kind of work? What kind of vibe do you want them to be putting out into the world today?
Daniel Alexander Jones (31:27):
Firstly, I'm a huge fan of... what I think everyone is... They're being called "Gen Z," right? Is that what you all are, kind of, are you straddling? I don't know what the names are-
Sarahjeen François (31:37):
I'm straddling, yeah.
Daniel Alexander Jones (31:37):
You're straddling [inaudible 00:31:42]. But I teach a lot of this generation and first of all, I feel like a lot of folks get a very bad rap, which is undeserved. The things that I love to observe are the profoundly true commitment to community and to individual freedom that I have witnessed in this generation. People fight for other people's ability to express themselves on their terms like, "We are not going to shut down somebody's right to be who they are." And as a result of that, there has been such a profound expansion of possibility in terms of taking up space in representing aspects of identity and questions of access that had been sidelined. No matter how much people had been agitating it was like something flipped with this generation. And so that's extraordinary. There's also, for me such a validation of interdisciplinarity, I'm like finally. The way that people are making, that's what I was doing 25 years ago, but nobody... Well, people were like, "What are you doing?"
Daniel Alexander Jones (33:15):
Now I'm like, "This is how people are working now, phenomenal." So in terms of the kinds of work that I'm hoping to see, and this is a tricky thing to say, my hope is number one, and I don't say this to shut anybody down. I want to be very particular about that, but I hope that people reach back while they're also reaching forward. Meaning that people study the history, what came before you. And what came before you, that's going to be meaningful for you is not going to be in a Google search. You have to talk to, you have to go see, you have to dig in an archive, you have to go out and really dig in the dirt. Not, and I think the fear is very often, and this is something I've talked to a lot of my students about, they're like, "Well, everything's already been done." I'm like, "Well you know, a lot of things have been done, but the point is not that you shouldn't do it too. When you do it, as I said, you're going to do it the way nobody else has done it."
Daniel Alexander Jones (34:29):
But I think it's a more exciting thing to know that you're working in a lineage of people who've been working that way and you can build on it and you can learn from them and it's not going to shut you down, it's going to open up more possibility. And also if I believe what I believe, which is that we're in a conversation across time with ancestors, they gonna help you. It's going to help move and fill and flow forward, number one. Number two, my great concern is around rigidity. I'm very concerned about people getting rigid around identity politics and around territory. And again, I want to challenge the idea that... I would say this: transformation is a core part of what it means to be human. And as artists we transform and we transform things. And there is a very big difference between cultural exchange and cultural participation and cultural appropriation. And I am very concerned to see exchange and participation, being mistaken for appropriation and being canceled and shut down. We have to learn from one another. And if we go back before the advent of European colonialism, there was cultural exchange all over the globe among all people and we learn from one another.
Daniel Alexander Jones (36:13):
We continue to learn from one another. That is important. It's important. And so I think of one of my mentors, who grew up on the Lower East Side and that she was a product yes, of some certain fairly traditional things like Southern Black migrant and Northern Black family, right? But also Puerto Rican culture, also Jewish culture, also Chinese culture in her everyday life. The people that she lived with, the people that she loved, and so objects and songs and stories and dances and foods that came from, that lived exchange are part of who she was. And so there are things that now might be parsed as belonging to this culture or belonging as that culture and they're behind the wall. Maybe not, because what we do then is we centralize and we give authority to white supremacy, because we say it all is about commerce and sale and ownership.
Daniel Alexander Jones (37:22):
I rebuke that. We don't own culture, you participate in culture and it is powerful to share it. The unfortunate thing is we are dealing with a system where it is owned, where culture is bought and sold. And so there's a tremendous pressure to hold on to what you have and to negotiate around it. But when it comes down to it, I know I don't have everything, I don't know everything. And what's going to not only heal me, but what's going to save me, what's going to transform me is going to be the result of the wealth of experience from all of the cultures on the globe. The wisdom that is trans-temporal and trans-geographic. And to remember that we have always on the planet for tens of thousands of years, we have moved, we have exchanged with one another, people have loved one another, they have crossed boundaries. They have woven a tapestry of experience that is so much more complex.
Daniel Alexander Jones (38:39):
And so I want, if anything, for this younger generation to claim that complexity, and you can honor the particulars, you can honor the traditions, you can honor the fact that there have been so many people who've been erased from the record, and you can repopulate it. We can call the names and we can make those distinctions. But then don't also follow suit with this kind of system of division that actually comes from the auction block. That Mm-mm (negative) Bye.
Sarahjeen François (39:18):
You just took to me to church.
Daniel Alexander Jones (39:24):
Okay. That's good.
Sarahjeen François (39:24):
I'm starting to-
Daniel Alexander Jones (39:24):
All right, that's good. You better move your legs, they don't fall asleep.
Sarahjeen François (39:26):
I didn't fall asleep, no. I was awake for the sermon. That was beautiful and moving.
Amy Chiao (39:31):
That's everything I'm thinking about all the time when creating, is it okay? Can make this, can I generate this? Am I allowed to because of my identity? And even with research having teachers say yeah, taking from your experience... I recently was trying to make a set design on gender identity and gender politics and my professor asked me, "Well, you're a woman, so... But you define yourself as a woman, I defined myself as a man. If you didn't go through exploring your gender is it okay for you to...Do you have much input on designing something about that?"
Daniel Alexander Jones (40:27):
Why do we write? Why do we make songs? Why do we dance? Why do we make film? Why do we paint? Why do we sculpt? What are we trying to communicate. What, is the purpose of communication to say, "This is mine, don't look at it? This is mine, don't be affected by it? This is mine, don't claim that you've been changed by it?" Or is the purpose to say, "This is a particular experience and I can honor that experience and I'm not going to try and I'm not going to take... Because I think part of it again, I'm going back to this white supremacist modality, right? Is we come from a long lineage. I'll speak specifically about music, for example. So probably the most classic example from early rock and roll, you have Big Mama Thornton singing, "You Ain't Nothing But a Hound Dog." And then you have Elvis go see her, record the song just like she did it, but not as good, and Elvis becomes a kajillionaire and Big Mama Thornton does not have that reward. And so we have the long history of an entire system taking, assimilating and then excising the people. That is profane and that is well evidenced. But that is distinct from...
Daniel Alexander Jones (42:07):
If I write some, and I'm going to speak for myself, I cannot speak for any other person. But if I write something that is from my experience, it's because I want to illuminate something that will help us be in better and clearer communication with one another. And if that thing helps you illuminate something for yourself, we're good. Now, if you take it and you strip my name off the cover and you put your name on it and you go and you sell it and you be like, "Look at what I wrote," that's theft. That's a very different thing, that's cultural appropriation, right? But cultural participation and cultural exchange, I actually want to read this and be in this room with this piece you've made. It is not my experience, but I know I'm going to be changed by it. I know I'm going to be changed by it, and I want to be changed by it.
Daniel Alexander Jones (43:12):
I want to be affected by it. That's one thing. And then the other thing is I remember Toni Morrison saying this. She was talking about when she was working with students, she said, "I don't care about your grandmother. Don't come in here and write a story about your grandmother." She said, "I want you to imagine a life that is completely different than yours. Go there, write me the story." And she gave a description of somebody who is completely different. And that is, to me, the danger of this rigidity is that we're stifling our capacity to imagine beyond the boundary of our own experience. And it is the artist's responsibility to continually move beyond the edges of what you know. And I would argue in theater it's imperative that we be able to move in and out of different personae, different experiences, different life journeys, right?
Daniel Alexander Jones (44:16):
And so it's tricky because... I remember this moment where I saw this documentary about Mary J. Blige and she was in the studio with P. Diddy, or Puffy back then, and they were having an argument and he was trying to shame her because she said, she liked this take of the song. And he was like, "I like this take." And she's like, "Well, play it back." And he kept switching back and forth between them and she was like, "Well, I think it's this one." He was like, "That's the one I liked," but he was deliberately doing it. And she said, "This is trickeration!" And I feel like that thing of calling out trickeration is important. And so it is trickeration when we are faced with theft and it's trickeration when we look at something like yellowface in film, that's trickeration, right?
Daniel Alexander Jones (45:13):
That is a very different experience to me than being in a cultural exchange where we can meet one another and we can move in and out of one another's stories and experiences-
Amy Chiao (45:28):
And have dialogue.
Daniel Alexander Jones (45:30):
Have dialogue. And I could say to you, I want you to play this part and I want you to play this part in my piece that I've made about my life experience and I'm holding the space for that experience to happen, and then for us to come back and to have a conversation about what that is. And what we'll find out is that we're talking about what's behind that is that in reality, in my life experience, these people were all together having a conversation, having a dialogue, right?
Daniel Alexander Jones (46:03):
And there's the film Hollywood money-making version where it's like, that would need to be cast in this way because of representation, which is real trickeration, right? Because of what the history has done of erasure, right? Is that what we want for the theater? And as we see more and more people of color, queer people, differently abled people moving into spaces where we have control over narrative, how will we imagine cultural exchange? How will we imagine cultural participation? How will we imagine it if we are not centralizing the idea that somebody's going to get tricked, somebody's going to get robbed and that only these people going to get paid. If I can flip that dynamic, which also invites this question about what kinds of institutions am I'm I working in, and what ways am I working? What does that mean?
Daniel Alexander Jones (47:09):
And there are a lot of people for whom they're like, "Hell no, I don't want anybody playing these roles except the people who come from those experiences. Period." And that is a legitimate place to be. It is not the place where I sit and that is a distinction. But I do think in order for that kind of exchange to happen, there has to be a house of intention, a house of care. And the purpose of it is to in a way reconnect our capacity to have these kinds of sharings. That's a healing work. And I will say, there is a long history of this kind of work to draw from that was devised by, designed by and practiced by artists of color going way back. So again, this is not my idea. This is not new. And it remains to be seen. So that was a long answer.
Amy Chiao (48:15):
That was a good answer.
Daniel Alexander Jones (48:15):
But it's a challenging thing. My hope is that the younger generation can imagine us together. Can imagine us together and can do the work of telling the stories and creating the circumstances to practice that togetherness. I am fearful of separation and segregation because I've seen what it does in my own lifetime. And I think it is ultimately in the service of the thing it's trying to correct. Which is this larger, ultimately white supremacist structure. Oh, we went deep.
Sarahjeen François (49:08):
Yeah, we did.
Sarahjeen François (49:13):
I think about all these things-
Daniel Alexander Jones (49:14):
Did that make sense? [crosstalk 00:49:14]
Sarahjeen François (49:15):
So bodies in space. I am curious about exploring how inherited trauma or how life experiences manifest in our bodies and how we walk and how we carry ourselves and how we gesture when we talk. Tell me about how that fits into the world of your work and your performance.
Daniel Alexander Jones (49:40):
I'm very, very fortunate to have learned from again, extraordinary artists who practiced in movement traditions. Specifically, I mentioned Robbie McCauley, I would call Laurie Carlos, who was another great mentor of mine. I would call their colleague Marlise Yearby, Grisha Coleman, Cynthia Oliver, many of whom came out of Urban Bush Women. And kind of the OG figure here is also this incredible choreographer named Dianne McIntyre with whom I have not worked, but who was kind of like the teacher of my teachers, right? And so we're dealing with Black feminist womanist practice, which acknowledges absolutely that our bodies carry the seed of our intelligence. It is the meeting place of the intellect of the heart, of the spirit of lived experience. And so the traditions were all kind of excavatory traditions, believing that through moving the body, through engaging those places that feel like energy flows and engaging those places where there are blocks or impediments, we can assess how our lived experience has affected our body and affected then our capacity to feel, to express, to produce, to create.
Daniel Alexander Jones (51:05):
So what I love about them is that they're like... We talked about what is your lived experience? The thing I loved is that they would be like, "Well, what is your lived experience? Who are you? Speak truthfully from that and I'm going to give you this thing that I want you to perform that may be a person or an idea or a thing that's very different than you. And the juicy thing is where the two come together, where they meet." So it's to me, this thing of, again, understanding that yes, we've been affected by all that we've lived through. And like the old people said, "Always, we carry all of the memory, all..." Going back and back and back and back. And I would argue it's not only biological lineage, but it's spirit lineage, right?
Daniel Alexander Jones (51:52):
You carry that information, but you also are meeting this being whether they be a real figure or an imagined figure that is new to you, and you can explore where they are too. A couple of the ground rules were always that this work was done in communion with others in a space that was intentional. Again, this thing of intention, right? That it was held space and it was space, I want to say it was safe space because it was sometimes very charged and frightening, right? But it was space where everybody knew that we were doing this work. And so there were people there to step in when need be and to attend to it if need be. And there was never this sense as often happens in some traditions that I'm thinking about, especially in kind of Western European dramatic performance traditions of exploiting the wound. Never, never, never, never that.
Sarahjeen François (52:54):
I'm working on also another piece called Casualties of War, and it's dealing with goddesses, I love the feminine divine. They're trying to save the fate of femininity. And it came about with the Brett Kavanaugh... I was thinking about sisterhood and solidarity and what do our bodies look like when we move together? What are the stark differences in the beauty that that creates and the language it creates?
Daniel Alexander Jones (53:22):
I love that. It's a beautiful.
Sarahjeen François (53:24):
Amy Chiao (53:27):
Is there a song that's been stuck in your head? Though I'm not going to make you sing.
Daniel Alexander Jones (53:37):
Yeah, you like this. You're like...
Amy Chiao (53:37):
Or so what have you been listening to recently?
Daniel Alexander Jones (53:38):
Oh yeah. I've been listening to a lot... I'll be very candid. I've been going back. I think the past is so active, so dynamic and I've been going back and doing the electronic version of crate digging. Going back and looking for music that I may not have paid attention to, or I missed entirely. And I've been digging up in the work of this incredible singer named Gwen McCrae. And she's known for her hit called "Funky Sensation." And she did another song called "Rocking Chair" in the 70s, but "Funky Sensation" was the one that was like
Daniel Alexander Jones (54:12):
(singing) "Can you feel it? Can you feel it? My funky sensation." And it has this killer (singing). It's like really... It's like of that era, like the early 80s. But I went back and I was like, "Wait a minute, how come I only know this song?" And I started digging and I was like, "Gwen McCrae!" One of those artists again, and that's what I talked about when I was saying about digging and looking for history, you're not going to find it in a Google search. I had heard of her and I even knew some of her songs, but I went back and I was like, "What is this story?" Because this artist, she could sing like nobody's business. And I've been just listening to everything I can get my hands on of hers. And so I do things like that. I kind of like get a little nudge and I go down the rabbit hole. So that's who I've been listening to a lot lately, is Gwen McCrae. Yeah.
Amy Chiao (55:12):
Thank you for sharing.
Daniel Alexander Jones (55:12):
Oh yeah. You all better dance to it. I tell you.
Amy Chiao (55:12):
Okay, I'm going to listen to her tonight.
Sarahjeen François (55:18):
On the way home.
Daniel Alexander Jones (55:19):
Thank you so much. What an honor to speak with you.
Sarahjeen François (55:21):
It was truly a pleasure.
Daniel Alexander Jones (55:23):
Sarahjeen François (55:24):
Daniel Alexander Jones (55:25):
Marissa Chibas (55:25):
(Music: "See (Things as They Are)" by Jomama Jones) That was Daniel Alexander Jones in conversation with Sarahjeen François and Amy Chiao. Thanks for joining us for the debut of the CalArts Center for New Performance Podcast. Come back for upcoming episodes featuring Emmy award-winning actor, Ron Cephas Jones, Oregon Shakespeare festival director Nataki Garrett, Lázaro Gabino Rodríguez and Luisa Pardo of Lagartijas Tiradas al Sol. This podcast was produced by CalArts Center for New Performance, the professional producing arm of California Institute of The Arts. Travis Preston artistic director, and Dean of CalArts School of Theater. Produced by George Lugg and Brooke Harbaugh. Edited and sound engineering by Duncan Woodbury. Podcast theme music by Cristian Amigo. Special thanks to Ravi Rajan, president of CalArts. For all things CNP, visit centerfornewperformance.org. Now, as we say goodbye, enjoy this snippet from Jomama Jones' newly released album, "Anew." Join us next time. (Music: "See (Things as They Are)" by Jomama Jones)