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Black Light

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - February 25, 2018

Jomama Jones
Photo by Joan Marcus

A few minutes into the theatrical cabaret show Black Light, opening tonight at Joe's Pub at the Public Theater, the evening's star Jomama Jones steps off the stage and directs us to shut our eyes. "Do you still see me in your mind's eye?" she asks. After a moment, she provides the answer. "Of course you do. You see, I've left an impression." She has, indeed, and as long as you are willing to go along for the ride, that impression will last well past the close of the performance 90 minutes later.

For those who don't know, Jomama Jones is the alter ego of the highly talented writer, singer, and performance artist Daniel Alexander Jones, who also is on the faculty of Fordham University's theater program. But do be aware this is no drag show. Jomama has too much on her mind to indulge in cheeky double entendres and lip syncing to Liza. These are turbulent times we live in, as she gently but insistently reminds us, and we need to focus our hearts, minds and collective efforts on setting things right. We need to be true witnesses, "in the Black tradition," as she puts it, not by being passive observers, but by actively taking responsibility for one another. While she does not name names, it's hard not to think of the divisiveness that is so negatively impacting our nation these days.

Hold on to this thought, because the notion of bearing witness is the driving force behind Black Light. For all the numerous costume changes and original songs that Jomama and her excellent band and backup singers perform, she is there to prod us into action, albeit with a warm smile and a velvet glove.

The production itself is a mix of music, stories, and messaging about love, hope, and the "courage to confront our contradictions." By themselves the songs, with a mix of styles ranging from soulful blues to smoky jazz to disco, could very easily serve as the basis for an entire cabaret act. But Jomama's unique contribution here is the compelling stories she offers up in segments between the dozen or so original compositions written by Jones, Laura Jean Anderson, Bobby Halvorson, Dylan Meek, and Josh Quat. One of the stories takes her back to her high school days and a friendly rivalry among her classmates as to who will get to spend her life with the singer Prince. While supposedly working in groups in their science class, mapping out the components of a black hole, she and her pals are poring over a poster of a scantily-clad Prince. It's a funny story, the way she tells it. No spoilers here, except to say that the clincher is the wise way the teacher handles the situation. The second and far more commanding story, about Jomama's "taciturn" Aunt Cleotha with whom she spent time in her childhood, provides a powerful exemplar as to what it truly means to be a living witness. Like everything else in the show, Jomama handles these stories in a genteel fashion, but each of them provides a potent lesson for anyone who is paying attention.

Black Light is not a play in any traditional sense of the world. It reveals its underlying direction slowly, like a jigsaw puzzle, a piece at a time. Sometimes, as when we are asked to take the hand of someone sitting near us, it does feel a little kumbaya. Yet beneath the warmth that Jomama most definitely conveys, there are touches of sadness and even rage as she talks about the "so-called United States of America" or the need for "all us Black Girls" to be "twice as good, twice as smart." Strip away the glitz and glamour of the cabaret act, and you've got a smart and compelling evening that will leave you with much to think about.

Black Light
Through March 25
Joe's Pub at The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street between East 4th Street & Astor Place
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: www,