|Stars range from 5-1.|
|Daniel Alexander Jones. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.|
As you may know, Soho Rep, one of New York’s most consistently adventurous theatre groups, recently discovered that, because of technicalities regarding its continuing existence in the TriBeCa space it has occupied for a quarter-century, it’s being forced to find a new location. Even had this situation not arisen, its 2016-2017 season opener, Duat, was already booked for the Connelly Theatre on the Lower East Side, while the 46 Walker Street venue was being rented to an outside company. Sadly, that show became a victim of the circumstances and had to close just as it was about to open; happily, a new venue subsequently was found.
|Daniel Alexander Jones. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.|
This, of course, places Soho Rep in a liminal space, perhaps comparable to the Egyptian afterlife known as Duat, from which Daniel Alexander Jones’s unusual theatrical curiosity takes its name. Jones, a writer-composer-director-performer, also is known by his drag queen name of Jomama Jones, a soul music diva; he made a splash at the Soho Rep in 2011 with Jomama Jones: Radiate, a monologue show with music, backed by two singers. David Rooney suggested in the New York Times that the Jomama character “deserves a stronger narrative arc.” Perhaps this was the spark that ignited his musical play Duat.
|Jacques Gerald Colimon, Tenzin Gund-Morrow, Daniel Alexander Jones. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.|
The racially mixed Jones, who identifies as black, has long been obsessed with ancient Egyptian cosmology; each seat in the theatre, in fact, contains an illustrated sheet listing his “Favorite Egyptian Gods,” such as the jackal-headed Anubis, Ma’at, Ra, Isis, Osiris, and so on. The script for Duat is prefaced by 26 pages of material by both Jones and Gale Jackson (a professor at Goddard College), some of it autobiographical but much of it about Egyptian gods and religion.
|Tenzin Gund-Morrow. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.|
Jones, who says in Duat that he read every book in his Springfield, Massachusetts, library, writes in high-flown prose, calling the “context” of his work “Afromysticism,” a subject inspired by his preoccupation with the history and contributions of black American culture. He exclaims: “I am compelled by the workings (visible and invisible) of the processes by which the potential becomes the manifest, the melody becomes the song; and by which the song becomes the call to us; and the process by which we, individually and collectively, in the presence of that call respond; and I am compelled by the cosmological and political implications of these workings.”
Fortunately, most theatregoers at Duat will not be reading Jones’s exposition but they’ll be spending two hours and 15 minutes (with an intermission) in his presence. There are, indeed, occasional references to the gods of Egypt and to Duat, and there’s even a strange musical scene in which a masked actor is costumed as Anubis; I leave it to you to decide on their significance, or whatever else Jones has on his teeming, if unfocused, mind. He himself isn’t concerned with whether you understand the play in a conventional sense: “Indeed, if you were to ask at the end, ‘but, what did it mean?’, I might invite you to consider ‘what you experienced.’ Hopefully, the meanings, plural, will unfold within you.” Hopefully.
The play, which Jones wants to be considered “not as a traditional script, but as a performance text,” allows for improvisation at certain points, and most of it, vividly staged by Will Davis, is played directly to the audience. There are a number of infectious songs (by Samora Pinderhughes, Bobby Halverson, and Jones), the dialogue is often elliptical and poetic (or faux-poetic, depending on your tastes), and the lyrics are artfully oblique. An upbeat, even motivational, tone and attitude drive the action, particularly in act two, with its imagery intended to suggest the planting of human seeds, pollination, and eventual flowering.
The first scene, “Heart,” is set in a library around a long table running parallel with the front of the stage. The nooks and crannies to either side of the auditorium are filled with old reading lamps, plants, and card catalogue files. We meet Daniel (Jones), a dapper, gentle fellow in his 40s; a teenage boy, Jacques (Jacques Gerard Colimon); and the 12-year-old Tenzin (Tenzin Gund-Morrow). The spiffy trio, wearing outfits in beige and brown, are creating a mix-tape of Daniel’s life, using a phonograph, card catalogs, and an overhead projector.
The boys are younger versions of Daniel, and the narrative –something of a confession urged on by Tenzin’s periodic reminder, “confess”—concerns Daniel’s life, his family, and the love for books fostered by the librarians (Stacey Karen Robinson) at his hometown “Black Library” in the mid-1980s, where he learned about race and class relations, as well as about queerness. Jeffrey Dahmer also played a role, so to speak, in his growing up. References to empowering black musical icons are made, with selections from Diana Ross and Prince.
The style changes radically for the cryptically ritualistic second scene, “Black,” which includes Anubis (Toussaint Jeanlouis) and other Egyptian figures, and is described as “a weighing of the human heart” against a feather. Whatever. Its standout moment is when the sweet-voiced Tenzin sings "Supernova."
Act two, “Flower,” blooms, and we’re in a schoolroom, with a table and chairs to either side, a blackboard (green, actually), and three large windows overhead. Jones, now in his Jomama persona, is the kindly, glam-bewigged schoolteacher, Miss Jones, showing off his long-legged figure in stilettos and a form-fitting blue skirt and white blouse. Her job is to hold a school pageant, which she considers a natural progression from Egypt’s ancient Abydos Pageant Play, in which the husk-like heart of Osiris was planted in the ground. The kids perform it wearing wonderful blue, paisley-decorated suits.
Attractively designed by Arnulfo Maldonado (sets), Oana Botez (costumes), and lights (Solomon Weisbard), and uniformly well performed, Duat is the kind of thing Soho Rep has been doing for years. Aficionados of this strain of downtown theatre may flock to it, but, while appreciating bits and pieces, and even laughing now and then, this viewer often longed for a Rosetta Stone to decipher that Jones boy's artistic hieroglyphics.