Omi Osun Joni L. Jones' Theatrical Jazz
The accomplished stage artist, scholar, and UT professor pens the first study of artists translating jazz aesthetics into theatre
This isn't theatre that moves in a straight line, that follows classical notions of character down clearly plotted paths, that adheres to Aristotelian unities of time, place, action. No, this is theatre that leaves the stage and sidles up to you; that's poetic, rhythmic, fluid – past, present, future, co-existing at once; that wanders free of the beaten track, improvising its own way, original and personal. Think Ntozake Shange's for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf. Think Adrienne Kennedy's Funnyhouse of a Negro. Think Erik Ehn's Heavenly Shades of Night Are Falling. This is to the well-made play what jazz is to a classical symphony.
Which goes a long way toward explaining what Omi Osun Joni L. Jones is digging into in her book, Theatrical Jazz: Performance, Àse, and the Power of the Present Moment (Ohio State University Press, 392pp., $99.95). The honored stage artist and scholar has penned the first in-depth study of a performance field that translates aesthetics of jazz – ensemble, improvisation, the break, the bridge – into theatre. The book spans generations, from such originators of the form as Shange, Kennedy, Ehn, and Aishah Rahman, who coined the term "theatrical jazz aesthetic," to such current practitioners as Grisha Coleman, Walter Kitundu, and locals Florinda Bryant and Zell Miller III. But the author gives special attention to three of its innovators: Laurie Carlos, Daniel Alexander Jones, and Sharon Bridgforth. All are artists who have worked closely not only with one another but also with Jones (she and Bridgforth are also newly married), so the study is enriched by Jones' firsthand observation and intimate knowledge of the creators. As she noted in an interview with Bridgforth, "It's like we have all been in a single ensemble for years."
Since its release in May, Theatrical Jazz has had a series of book parties across the nation. With the Austin party slated for Sunday, the Chronicle emailed Jones some questions about the book.
Austin Chronicle: What was your first experience with "theatrical jazz," even if you didn't yet know that term or that aesthetic?
Omi Osun Joni L. Jones: Years ago, when I was living in D.C., Reginald Metcalf and I started a Black Theatre company, Home, Theatre for New Columbia. (New Columbia was the most popular name residents voted on if the District were ever to become a state.) We were commissioned by the D.C. Commission on the Arts to create a performance piece based on the work of Mildred Baldwin, a Black painter who had an exhibit in the city. Reggie was going to direct it, and I was to perform. Reggie took me through a series of improvisations and what seemed to be random experiences and developed a script from that. What I remember most is that there was a lot of silence in the performance, there was a console TV as the primary set piece (in Mildred's work, there were often people staring blankly into televisions), there was a video about miscegenation as if it were a TV commercial, and I was just turned out at the end of the show! Something happened! The nonlinearity, the close proximity to the audience (it was a semicircle, and I could touch the audience), the vulnerability of working inside a form I didn't recognize – in fact, a form I think Reggie and I were building as we went – all of that left me spent. I couldn't go out to greet the audience after the show. As I reflect on it, that experience was my introduction to what some of us are now calling "theatrical jazz."
Long after that, I saw Daniel Alexander Jones in Blood:Shock:Boogie at Frontera@Hyde Park Theatre, and I was undone. Who? What? I couldn't answer anything easily about this production! Gender, sensuality, race, audience/performer relationship – all of this was being shaken up in scary, important ways. The moorings were slipping.
I think what joins these two experiences are the sense of courageous abandon onstage and the disorientation I felt as an audience/witness. There is something important in the unknown and the unexpected. It encourages us to explore our spirits widely, perhaps dangerously. That was deeply exciting. And I knew my spirit had expanded by participating in these experiences.
AC: Which came first, your understanding of the aesthetic and your ability to identify artists as belonging to it, or recognizing the similarities among these different artists and articulating that aesthetic they shared?
OOJJ: Recognizing the similarities came first. Something in what Daniel, Laurie, and Sharon do opened up space for Blackness in general and Black Theatre specifically to be utterly idiosyncratic, to be political without stridency, to question the contours of sexuality and gender in ways I had not then known Black Theatre to do, and to embrace a storytelling that did not necessarily tell a story at all.
AC: How did you key in to those three as exemplars of theatrical jazz for the book?
OOJJ: Sharon, Daniel, and Laurie do very different types of work. Within theatrical jazz, there are vast particularities that derive from how each artist approaches the work. I first chose to centralize them in the book because I had worked with all three of them very closely, so I had a lot of experience on which to base my ideas. And they had all worked closely with each other – this allowed me to talk about what it means to develop an ensemble, a community – how we borrow, share, jointly reflect. And (!) there is something of a time and place expanse that was important. Laurie's work is connected to the development of the Greenwich Village avant-garde scene and the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s/1970s. Sharon's work is often rooted in a Black Southern sensibility – sonically, thematically, and in terms of characterizations. Daniel's work more and more builds on a variety of performance traditions – opera, performance art, fairy tales, historical fiction – along with a richly evolving musical storytelling. Focusing on these three extraordinary artists allowed me to talk about many things.
This also meant finding a way to let each of their sections in the book be as distinctive as their art. After reading the book, Daniel said that each of those sections is its own song. That was satisfying. That's what I wanted to achieve.
The Theatrical Jazz Book Party: Austin will take place Sunday, Sept. 20, 2-4pm at Salvage Vanguard Theater, 2803 Manor Rd. For more information, visit www.theatricaljazzbookparty.com.