News

A blog by performance artist and playwright Daniel Alexander Jones

Feeling in the Dark (a preface to DUAT)

I wrote this as the preface to Soho Rep's published version of the performance text for Duat. I share it at year's end as a testimony.

 

Feeling In The Dark

(A preface to Duat)

By Daniel Alexander Jones

 

Lena Horne sat in an interview with the noted television interlocutor Dick Cavett in 1981. Flush with the impact of her victorious show, The Lady and Her Music, Horne spoke with candor when Cavett referred to old perceptions of her as a “cultured introvert” in contrast with the ferocity of her persona in her show, and in the room that night. “I was a late bloomer”, she said, “I didn’t ‘un-introvert’ until I was 50…I was behind a mask that I thought would not make me seem stereotypical…I went way back and got some kind of mask that just erased everything…an unknown category, I could not be reached. I would not give myself easily because of my hangups, racially and otherwise. …But I found that some of them were creating a block in me artistically.” She went on to discuss the impact of hearing the voice of Aretha Franklin, a voice she called, “an ultimate free sound”. Franklin’s voice broke her heart open. And it became a model for her, not to emulate stylistically, but to understand emotionally, spiritually, and psychologically. “I was very icy for many years, and I could not be at ease with you, with many people. Because of the ice that society had put around my heart.” 

 

We live in heartbreaking times. Our individual proximity to the burning eyes of violent destruction is determined by a number of factors, including privilege (or lack thereof) on the one hand and chance on the other. In the United States, there are particular new cycles of violence, rooted in old, poisonous and systemic scripts, that prey upon us because of bodies we are in, the rights we assert, the culture we embody, and the transformations we enact. The cost of courageous confrontation is grave. The codes for access to comfort and relative safety may be updated, but they are not new; and there is definitely no guarantee that your deal with the devil will be worth the skin it was written on this time around. The impact of that violence will reach everyone, eventually, for that violence is irreparably damaging our Earth. As the old spiritual says, “the rock cried out—no hiding place”. The ice caps are melting fast.

 

I always felt kinship with Horne’s iciness. It was hauntingly familiar. I would sometimes stare at her face, a face that many folks said my own resembled. I could feel her brilliance, and also her unambiguous decision to be in charge of who did, and who did not have access to the inside. While she was a peerless luminary in the pantheon of great Black stars, and I was just a little kid from a working class neighborhood in a small, fading, Northeastern city, I felt some resonance between macro and micro. From a young age, I had developed my own distance and reserve as a way of disrupting the caging and distorting projections, and deflecting the barely veiled attacks from folks within the strange world I’d entered, so different from my own home and neighborhood. That home was a so-called interracial household; that neighborhood was a diverse, close-knit, working class enclave. That strange world was a predominantly white public school system. I was, in the 1970s and 1980s, an integrator. Part of a generation that came of age in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, who boarded yellow buses to make our way away from our neighborhoods to receive a complicated education. We were meant to embody and enact the sunny side of the ideals espoused, the faithful interpretation of the letter of the laws passed; but we also navigated the shadow side of pernicious resistance, silent retreat, and gradual yet persistent reversal. Buoyed by a crystal clear combination of a) the unwavering assumption of our capacity for excellence, instilled in us by family and community, and b) their unerring faith in us, my friends and I experienced an odd prescience that we were entering something far more complicated than just ‘going to school’, but that we were not only equal to it, but were expected to stay on top of, and ahead of it. Whatever ‘it’ was. 

 

Years later, I would come to understand that ‘it’ included a tightrope dance over a treacherous terrain of absorptive and erasing white supremacy at worst, cultural chauvinism at best, patriarchy, misogyny, and just plain old meanness. Those are not descriptors that would resonate for a bus full of elementary school students; but I assert, that while we couldn’t name ‘it’, we could sure as hell feel ‘it’. And we could sense the harrowing damage it wrought, sometimes slowly, sometimes swiftly, as we grew in macrocosmic and microcosmic ways further away from original intentions; one way that integration failed. There was no halcyon time. No idyllic, CHIC-soaked rollerskating haven immune to the shadow side. But, there were real people, in community, with all of their complexities and contradictions who made a go of it and practiced a way of becoming based on a kind of radical if quotidian vulnerability. A fragile web of actions rooted in a desire to enact equality, hold space for difference, make room for people to stretch out beyond the habits of their identities, and do with some measure of intentional kindness, one way integration succeeded, however briefly. 

 

“And, I said God, let me open up myself”, Horne continued, recounting Franklin’s impact on her self-described icy heart. “When she, and things that happened to me, of course, broke my heart, I realized I wasn’t ice. I was very fragile, very human, and a woman who had been this way for protection, so I loved it that she made me cry. Because I wouldn’t cry for years.”  

 

It’s a joke my friends are very familiar with: “I don’t cry; I don’t drink enough water to make tears”. Partially true, it has been my way of deflecting attention, others’, yes, but largely my own, away from the ice around my own heart. I haven’t cried, because the water was not in liquid form. Now, the peculiar algebra of navigating a post-integration United States landscape, while trying to keep hold of integrity and while seeking some measure of civic possibility (that is dynamically inclusive, egalitarian, and aggressively anti-colonial) is nothing unique; it is a well-worn story of trusting hearts face to face with a fundamentally untrustworthy proposal. And, that there has been something braced, coiled, rigid, sentinel and ready-for-the-other-shoe-to-drop-as-a-signal-that-it’s-time-to-rumble in the core of me, too, is nothing unique. I don’t think my experiences are “special” or that I am somehow divorced from a larger context. But, I begin with my testimony because it is my melody, and it is a truthful point of departure—in it remain insights only revealed through the playing, and, with it I can call to others to put their hands on their own melodies, as we move, together, into a particular experience of the larger contexts within and without. My heart pierced by the accelerated, unspeakable violence and loss I have witnessed these last few years, I have wept. My heart breaking open, from within, in a sustained unstable wail for the irreparable and irreversible damage being done, macro and microcosmically. Throughout, I have been visited by fragments of memory, flashes of emotion and insight flowering forth from the past. Evidence. In Duat, the Archivist (Ma'at) says:

 

…death don’t worry me. 

This is different.”

 

I sense that my personal struggle, and the greater, more pointed struggle of many others, is in part a struggle against the erasure of potential, against the winnowing and constraining of the breadth of life and expression, against the wholesale assault on the imagination. The urgency at the core of me, and the connected urgency of many others, is to voice that potential both in terms of what gets imagined, and, in terms of what gets remembered. We manifest what we imagine. My forbears imagined freedoms they did not, themselves, experience. And, by so doing, became architects of a trans-temporal reality. I have felt a block in me—a block of ice. I am sure I cannot articulate all the reasons why it exists. But, I can say, without question, that the block has to go. And, I can say, with certainty, that most people I encounter, on the real, are contending with some version of this block, regardless of whatever elements comprise their own. I understand that we need to be fully available to imagine beyond the boundaries of this current experience. Heart in hand, I consider the evidence. My heart has surged with a profound, unambiguous love for the beauty, and bravery of all those who face this abyss and keep breathing, moving, seeking, cultivating expansion in the midst of harrowing reduction, even erasure. A community of feeling in the dark.

 

And, so, this work began as an impulse to explore a ritual of deliberate undoing and transformation that felt at once future and ancient. I asked for inspiration and information from both those temporal spheres. I relied on the words of the late Alice Coltrane, “They’ll be there. They’ll be moving in a translinear path”. Within the Black American autobiographical tradition, there is an implicit relationship between “I” and “we”; the first person narration is specific, yet part of a congregation of experiences that are familiar, it is hoped, in the sense of that word. Testimony is a call, witness is a response, intended to arouse an affective experience, for which each individual has particular vantage points. We share space.

 

In the belly of Duat, Osiris sits back to back with the god Atum. It is a space devoid of anything save the structure upon which Osiris sits. There is no light, no sound, no movement of air. He is aware of the sentience of Atum, but that awareness alerts him even more keenly to his ultimate isolation. After the death of his “self”; other than, yet housed among the ruptured (phantom?) fragments of that dismembered self; beyond that which was remembered then released by those who loved him, he is, alone. Nothing stirs. The crucible of his own thoughts, regrets, longings, fears grows ever more intense. With no marker, he cannot tell if he has sat there for a moment or a century. In desperation he cries out, “will I be here forever?”… The answer comes back—“yes”. 

 

In the tradition of mythic conundrums, this rates pretty high up there. For, the soul’s journey through Duat is beset by doubts and demons, riddles and lies, distortions and derangements, and, too, cues and clues. The imprint of the seed, does it remain long after germination? In one sense maybe, “I” will be there forever—the person that any of us were in the dark, does that person, that aspect of ourselves, in part, remain, tethered?  Does that person give way to our transformation, to our becoming like the hull of a seed gives way to the plant within? Spoiler alert: Osiris makes it out. But, he is changed. He has been killed, dismembered, remembered, resurrected, then “dies” to the world to live in the eternal world of the dead (an alternate dimension of the gods in the sky above us). Is the fear of willing myself out of the icy dark not in fact connected to the visceral knowledge that I will be irrevocably changed when I do? Pain awaits. That thing which breaks open in me could destroy or renew me; but it will shed the life I’ve been living in the process either way. Easier to hang back in an ‘unknown category’, a windowless, airless, still fortress of solitude. Easier, ’til you can’t no more. 

 

I commit this to you: I will offer you my real heart through Duat (no ice). Indeed, my work and the work of my collaborators has been to stay in the heat of that realness. Some aspects of that realness are revealed in oblique ways, since there are spirits in the corner that you can only spy through your peripheral vision, and so, sometimes, we conjure abstractly. Other aspects of that realness must be offered directly. No distractions or attempts to prettify. Uncut. There is a conscious dance between familiar and unknown, set and improvised. This text, for example, is like a chart in music; ultimately, a point of departure into a lived experience. Duat is an experience into which you are invited. 

 

If myths are narrativized symbol sets; deep within the symbols themselves lie urgent desires to recollect the pieces of experience, and in the chambers of the heart, remember and communicate them to invite others to imagine their way beyond caging habits of reduction and into the wide, pulsing feeling of life.

QUEER IN ME

what u call queer in me

is the meeting place of mountains

cerulean ocean sky lips

touching

all my

honey

in my palms

offered across time to

lovers brave enough

to leap

what u call queer in me

is just me making holy

on a good day

and just me making holy

of your bad way

what u call queer in me

is sojourner’s north star

and sylvester’s sweat soaked

assurance

what u call queer in me

is the one spot in the

mirror

rubbed clean enough

for you to see

the stars

MOVING IN AFROMYSTICAL SPACE

I was recently invited to reflect upon my work as a whole over the last two decades plus. I saw a common thread and when I went to articulate it the term AFROMYSTICISM popped out. I searched for others who have used this term and did not find any examples - surprisingly. So I am voicing this term--not as definition, but as description. I see the ways in which my own spiritual inquiries and longings have been rooted in/have met with/danced with Theatrical Jazz and Afrofuturism. But my work has not easily lived within either of those houses alone.

Through performance, theatre, music, etc. I aim to construct ephemeral, living architectures, and vibrant, temporary communities to invite audiences into what I hope are liberatory, expansive experiences of themselves and one another. I pursue the creation of spaces that are beautiful, rigorous, surreptitiously disorienting, and suffused with truths often lost within absolutes of identity, narrative and social habits. Mystical spaces that engage the imagination and the power of the fantastic to speculate possibilities where there seem to be none. This has been the experience audiences have related to me about Jomama Jones's work. This is at the heart of the ghostly rituals of my play, Phoenix Fabrik; the love and longings in my play, Bel Canto; the particular conjuring coded in the songs that I write. And, for sure, it is the core principle at work in my newest collaboration with my crew (more news on that soon).

I am writing in greater detail about this concept, in context. So more thoughts on the way. But for now... yeah... embracing the need to move in Afromystical Space.

A Note on Father's Day and Arthur Leroy Jones

I always come back to this picture. 

Dad and Danny.

The lessons my father taught me while I grew up were largely dissatisfying to my young self. They were a handful of seeds. They had little to nothing to do with immediate gratification, crystalline directives, or easily assimilable answers to my near-constant questions to my parents about why people acted like they did in the world outside our close-knit circle. The lessons most often took one of two forms. The first form would be a saying, dropped like a riddle that rolled to my feet to be puzzled over while he turned his attention to something else. These sayings ranged from the well-worn and popular, like, “slow and steady wins the race”, to far more opaque pronouncements. The second form was more common—action. My father would just do something. Most often, doing something meant not talking about it, but just leaving the house and attending to a need that someone had, somewhere. Whether it be going to the grocery store for an infirm neighbor, or rolling up unannounced to counsel a neglectful parent of one of the kids he mentored, or spending hours setting up any number of activities for any number of events for any number of community organizations of which he was a vital part. The most profound lessons invariably were tied to an palpable, kinetic energy I can best call “getting on with it”. I have to scrape the sides of my memory to recall my father complaining. And when I do, on those rare instances, not once, to my memory, did he complain about something that disappointed him personally. His concern was almost always, rhetorically, focussed on others.  

I used to get mad at my father for spending so much time and energy on other people, when I was young. Less so because he wasn’t spending it on me or my family, though that sometimes stung, but more so because I felt that people didn’t appreciate what he gave them. I saw, even as a very young child, how vital he was to others’ well-being. How his profoundly thoughtful presence, consistently activated by real-world-follow-through, kept so very many lives from tipping over the edge—and this is not hyperbole. I loathed the ways that over the years many of his white colleagues and friends would leapfrog over him for opportunities, access and status, though the vast majority of them were, to my mind, intellectually and ethically inferior to him. I resented the way that other black men in the community would step nimbly into the spotlight after he had done the majority of the work to take credit and sometimes not even mention his name for major community initiatives or successful programs at church or other institutions. But, these were my fiery takes on matters. My father, just got on with it. 

My father’s family were all from South Carolina. Some from the Charleston area, more from the Columbia area. The Joneses, like so many other participants in the Great Migration, came northward to seek something better. And, like so many others, a lynching was the direct spur; I’ve written of my grandmother’s experience losing her cousin to lynching as a little girl—she found the body, the blood dripping on her face from the tree. In Springfield, Massachusetts, her church for many years (she lived doors down the street from it) and my father’s church to this day, is Bethel A.M.E. And so, I have been thinking especially of my father this week. The massacre at Charleston put the names and faces of those killed into the mainstream media. But within their community, from the reports given, they, too, were cut from the same kind of cloth as my father. 

The lessons my father taught me, I now realize, were meant for my adult self, my fully-grown self. Like some magical seeds from a fairy tale, many of them have cracked open and unfolded in the past several years to reveal their nuanced yet potent wisdom. I carry some, still dormant, in my pocket, hopeful they will guide me through future challenges. But, I am so profoundly grateful that my father taught me the way he did. He made me have to journey and experience life before assessing it. He did not limit me with his opinion, but rather gave me clues, so that when I began to see patterns emerging in my own or others behavior, I’d be led back to check on that handful of seeds. 

One of my father's favorite sayings goes: "People speak their minds, and betray their attitudes". As we witness unchecked violence and hatred consume, maim and destroy lives with abandon here in this country and abroad, much of it utilizing the particular, violent philosophies and vocabularies of racism and homophobia, I find my own rage against these machines met in the mirror by the wise gazes of my parents and my ancestors. They caution me. They remind me that if I've compromised my capacity for love and compassion, I am walking down the wrong path. I struggled as a child with the ethos of non-violence that my parents embodied. (My Uncle Gus would offer a salty balance to this ethos in the ranging conversations and tale-telling visits and philosophical arguments he’d have with my parents.) This year I wonder more than ever if I will someday master the transmutation of anger before it tips over into rage and hatred toward those committing atrocity; or, if I even should. 

There is something so powerful about seeing the evidence of your lineage assert itself as you age. I see physical traits manifest (my father's gait, my mother's posture, the curve of my Grandma Daisy Mae's hand, my grandmother Bunny's gaze, the Jones family's inimitable laugh). But also I feel those philosophical insights that used to annoy me (like any kid gets tired of hearing the same sayings) but now prove truer than I could have imagined. I am so grateful for them. I've met few more loving and compassionate people than my parents. My personal dis/ease with so much of what passes for contemporary socio-political/cultural discourse is rooted in the apparent near-absence of love and compassion, and the framing of love and compassion as ancillary, passive, pie-in-the-sky weakness. Perhaps, I feel the way I do because through my family’s example I understood love to be action.  And so, in lieu of answers, I will, in honor of my father, using my own medium of the arts, “get on with it”. 

BJÖRK - Rite of Spring

I'd purchased a ticket to Björk's Carnegie Hall concert as a marker of my 45th birthday. I did not realize, until I attended, that this was to be the very first public performance of the music from Vulnicura, her new album. Like many of my friends, I'd been a Björk fan since the days of the Sugarcubes, when her utterly earthly voice cut through the guitar wash of "Birthday" to greet my hungry late-teenaged ears. Her solo albums, through some private synchrony, have shown up at pivotal moments in my own life journey. And so, they have helped me through and helped me remember intensely beautiful and challenging passages. 

The potency of Vulnicura rests in great measure within this artist's capacity to trust in her own voice and presence. Everything is stripped back. Melodies are atomized. It is naked, unflinching, unapologetically direct and clear. She stands in each of the underworld spaces and cries out truth; it is a real and righteous record of the dissolution of a life/love/relationship and of the many realities-in-the-making which die as a result of that dissolution.

The concert added a huge dimension. It was ritual. Björk drew on ancient wisdom. Earth-based spirituality, so old it's in the bones met ultra modernity. Arca's precise and bold sonic contributions along with the percussionist and string players' powerful layers set the stage for Björk to enact that most primal of cyclical rituals - standing at the edge of the darkest winter and proclaiming the return of Spring, of lengthening light, of resilience, of the shivering, vulnerable new self, skin shed, raw... here. 

 

An Integrator's Manual: BeginNings (Again)

I am working on the foundational text for An Integrator's Manual. It will be comprised of new material and excerpts from the multi-year performance project, The Book of Daniel. As with all new projects, there is no small measure of terror. But also, absolutely, a palpable excitement.

I am working with the personal impact of the much discussed failure of integration, working in the tradition of autobiography-as-sprinboard/connector. Meant to be a reflection and invitation.

So much to do. Time to stretch time to make time!