First presented at the Public Theater’s Under the Radar festival this year and then for a longer run at Joe’s Pub in February, Black Light, now at the Greenwich House Theater (transformed by set designer Gabe Evansohn and lighting designer Ania Parks into a lush supper-club-style space with a touch of the cathedral about it) bills itself as “a musical revival for turbulent times.” Created by Daniel Alexander Jones and performed by his longtime alter ego Jomama Jones, a diva who is both majestic and somehow comforting (backed by an excellent band), the show is a broadly spiritual, intimate, and inviting cabaret that nonetheless holds a core of steely anger forged from a historical legacy of violence.
Jomama is immensely charming—a commanding physical presence dressed in an ever-changing array of glitter and glamour (Oana Botez’s costumes, always delightfully sparkly but just the tiniest bit frayed around the edges, strike just the right note, even if the frequent costume changes do slow down the pacing), with a confiding tone in her silky speaking voice and remarkable control in her singing vocal range. She begins by asking a series of questions: “What if I told you it’s going to be all right? What if I told you not yet? . . . What if I told you that we won’t all make it through?”
Black Light hovers between those two poles—Jomama’s wonderfully alive and soothing presence willing us to believe that it can indeed be all right; Jomama’s harder-won wisdom and stories reminding us that we have a long way to go, we have constant choices to make, and sacrifices will be demanded of us. The gentleness and positive energy with which she reaches out to the audience—asking all the audience members, at one point, to hold hands with a stranger sitting near us—is always counterposed by the constant struggle to negotiate the currents of black rage; how to contain it, use it, live with it. Jones and director Tea Alagić calibrate Jomama’s relationship with the audience smartly, with the right balance of intimacy and direct engagement, but none of the coyness that can sometimes creep into cabaret performances.
Loosely structured as a coming-of-age story for the young black girl of the 1970s that Jomama was, Black Light touches on her adolescence, her childhood, and her musical influences (Prince, punk rock), using recurring metaphors as a throughline: the crossroads, black holes, the idea of black light itself—both the sort of cheesy everything-white-glows-purple kind so emblematic of the 1970s, and also the play’s specific sense of the faint starglow that lets you see in the dark. And Jones also exhorts us, at first gently and with a dash of mysticism that can sometimes feel a little generic, and finally more urgently—as a call to arms—to remember that we are at a historical crossroads. A crossroads is a place of choosing, she says, and the choice put before us all is how we will live in these troubled times, as a passive observer or a living witness, one who takes responsibility for what we see and experience around us.
The piece ends with a call to “imagine our way out” by first seeing things as they are, and acting on those truths. This could seem like a fairly anodyne platitude, but it’s a slightly more complex position to take in a piece of live theater centered around the conceit that the show’s creator and performer—Daniel Alexander Jones and Jomama Jones—are separate figures rather than one and the same. (They have separate program bios, for example.) It’s a useful reminder that truth isn’t always exactly what meets the eye.
The overall positive ambience and the sheer warmth of Jomama’s presence make it all the more striking when she, without ever changing the tone, grapples with her rage and tells brutal stories of her family and her past. It’s a difficult balancing act, and I find myself divided on whether the tonal evenness is a balm in difficult times, a model for how to raise hard subjects without breaking stride, or whether it’s a little too much of a warm bath when the subject demands a cold shower. Still, Jomama’s very presence is a tonic for embattled spirits and frayed nerves, and it’s a pleasure to spend an evening with her.