Cosmic Heart: a Conversation with Daniel Alexander Jones
Daniel Alexander Jones is a tremendous artist. Whether he is channeling guardian angel / Orisha / chanteuse / messenger Jomama Jones, writing fierce, strange, and poetic plays (recently collected in the necessary volume Love Like Light), or creating altar spaces as installation art, Jones brings his capacious, vulnerable, and responsive heart forth as an offering to his lineage and his audience. Speaking with him, as I recently did over Zoom, one feels an outpouring of generous energy, like opening a faucet of good feelings. His intelligence and curiosity crackles in a way that’s infectious — we both left our lengthy conversation lifted.
Editing this transcript proved difficult, for Jones is putting into practice a concept we talk about at length — stories are told and words are spoken not for their denotative content, but for the energetic transfer they induce, a transfer that brings with it the possibility of a deeper connection to the present moment. As such, I’ve decided to leave most of Jones’ language intact, so you might feel the rhythm of his in-the-moment thinking, its energetic and imaginative unfolding in time.
Our conversation runs wide and deep, but focuses on Jones’ recent online smorgasbord of a visual album / conversation series / astrologically-informed creative prompts, Aten. It is lightly edited for clarity.
Jerry Lieblich: I was wondering if you wanted to start with a dedication.
Daniel Alexander Jones: Oh, that’s beautiful. Yeah, I would, thank you so much. I will dedicate today to one of my great teachers, who I write a little bit about in [Love Like Light], but her name was Constance Berkeley, and she was a professor of Africana studies in my undergraduate at Vassar College. She’s been heavy on my heart these last few days, cause I’ve been encountering some intense stuff in the classroom with my students. I’ve been calling on her spirit a lot to help me navigate. I feel like she’s been walking with me as an ancestor in a way, through the minefield.
My students, as anyone who’s teaching now I’m sure would attest, they’re just exhausted, and they’re scared, and trying to figure out what they’re heading into. And I’ve been attempting to be as truthful with them as possible. And so I dedicate to her because she’s been helping me.
Would you like to dedicate to somebody?
JL: I’d like to dedicate this to my great grandma, Judy, who comes to mind because she is the first person I have a memory of interviewing. In first grade, we were asked to interview an elder in our family. And I remember calling her up, and she was in Palm Springs, living in a desert. I asked her: “what is the most important invention that’s come about in your lifetime?” And she said, “air conditioning.”
DAJ: I love that.
JL: But she was a beautiful, fierce woman. I remember going to the desert for the first time with her, and seeing a tarantula and just being blown away with what a different ecosystem can feel like. So perhaps those energies of enjoying a new landscape are with me today.
DAJ: I love that. And I’m also a big, big, lover of the desert.
JL: Well you’ve had a busy few months, it seems. And there’s so much [to talk about], but I thought maybe we would focus today on the Aten project. Where did it come from? Can you identify the germ of it?
DAJ: So exactly a year ago, we lost my mom. She started to fail in the summer of 2020, and it was unexpected. I was able to go and be with her and my brother and my father for the last, maybe, 10 days of her life. Without question, it was the holiest and the most challenging experience of my adult life.
I was lucky. I had her until I was 50 years old. A lot of people don’t have that luxury, you know. But there’s also maybe a false idea sometimes that you can deal better if you’re older — but it’s still such a profound upheaval.
And in that process, as I imagine any artist would do, I really fell into a space of deep contemplation about the universe. And in particular at a time when so many of the mooring posts in the culture were gone — the election had just happened, but we were still waiting for the results during her hospice time. So everything felt up in the air.
We did home hospice, so it was 24 / 7 with her, and all the things that come with that. [There was this] feeling that there was something so holy about everything: from the deep conversations you have with a loved one where you all know you’re not going to be together, so you say the things you need to say and ask the things you need to ask; but also the washing, and the body fluids, and the medicine, and the ritual, and the rites. All of that activated something in me.
And after her passing, I went back to LA. I’d been teaching a class. And as part of the class I was reflecting on Laurie Carlos’ great play White Chocolate for my Father. And in that play, there are a number of different characters who occupy the space at the same time, but they’re in different moments in history. They’re all connected by family, but she did, dramaturgically, this really extraordinary thing, which is she made a kind of complex equation of these different times moving together, but acting on one another.
And as part of teaching that class, I found this animation, which is not scientifically accurate at all, but it really helped, which is the idea of the helical procession of the sun and the planets through the universe. And after this loss, I looked at it differently: I started to feel the body of the solar system in the body of the universe.
There’s a quote from one of my favorite books, which is a poetic translation of the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, called Awakening Osiris, by the writer Normandi Ellis. It concludes with a prayer that says: “We are gods in the body of God. Go forth then and make of the world something beautiful. Set up a light in the darkness.” And with all of that going on, I said: Oh! Our solar system is constructed around a light in the darkness. And it helped me grieve. It helped me feel my mother’s spirit in the larger universe.
And that image of the solar system just stuck with me. And I said: why don’t you make something about the solar system? My joke with my friends was that this is as close as I’m ever going to get to an adaptation of a classical structure. But I said, okay, I’ll try my hand at that.
I had been working on this altar project, which was called Altar Number Five. And it was something that The Public had commissioned and New York Live Arts was part of, and it was this really beautiful collaborative thing that just got blown up by the pandemic, as most folks’ work did. But I took that idea of the altar that I’d been playing with, and I repurposed it. I invited my dear friend Josh Quat, with whom I make songs, to come out. And he braved travel pre-vaccine, we did all the protocols, and we went to Joshua tree. So we went to the desert. We got a little Airbnb, and we spent two weeks in February, and we created the album. And that became the core of the project.
It was like being in another dimension. It kind of almost wrote itself. Now, we wrote it; I mean we definitely were up, grinding. But there was a cohesion to it. We somehow knew where it needed to go sonically. We knew what it needed to do sequentially. Even the idea that we made four songs for the sun — we knew we needed more than one.
When we were done, we knew we had done something that was bigger than what we had intended for it to be. And I began to dream into it immediately, and say: I think there’s something here that is different. I thought it was going to be a Jomama Jones album, basta. But it turned out that some of the voices that came through were not her voice, and some of the perspectives were really embodiments of these planetary energies, imagined or anthropomorphized or however you want to think about them. So I knew I had to do something more. I wanted it to be something that could be multivalent. And that’s when the larger idea came to make it a project that I could engage with film/video, and engage with some interactivity, and conversations.
And as you know, sometimes those things happen where stuff just kind of lines up. And what felt like this massive failure of the Altar Number Five project gave birth to this odd and beautiful alignment. And I felt like it was purposeful, in light of my mom. It’s my prayer to her, in many, many respects, if I go to the heart of it.
My mom, interestingly, used to used to love film. Cause she grew up as a kid in the thirties, forties, and the golden era of Hollywood. She and my dad both were kids that would pay their nickel and go stay at the movie theater all day on Saturdays. And so that kind of Mickey and Judy “let’s put on a show” energy, that’s what suffused this project. Everybody involved in making this one was there because they believed in it. And things happened that shouldn’t have been able to happen. But they did.
JL: There’s so many threads in there that I want to pull on, but the one that’s coming to me first is, what did this process do to your experience of grief?
DAJ: I’m an Aquarian. And so we’re often told that we’re very aloof, and that we think we know things about the universe and life. We love humanity, but don’t like people — that’s the tagline for my sign. But there’s always been some part of me that has been aware of the purpose of death, what it means in the larger sphere of a lifecycle. Even as a little kid, I didn’t have the same kind of reaction when a person died that a lot of people had. I felt like they were leaving the Earth, but they weren’t going away.
Part of my own journey as an artist has been to reckon with those who are no longer living. I think I’ve always had a very strong relationship to what I call the ancestors. Even if we are the most materialist atheist, we are in relationship with trajectories of history that we inherit, right? We’re in a dialogue with what’s come before us.
So I bring all of that up to say that on some level I’ve always loved with the knowledge that the people I love are going to die, and that I’m going to die. There’s never been a sense that we’re going to get out of it without that.
I’ve certainly lost family members and friends. But when it’s your mother, it’s different. And even if you’ve had a really contentious relationship — I’ve had friends who’ve had horrible relationships with their mothers — it still is different. There’s something so primary.
So as I learned that she was heading to a place of no return, I felt that part of me from younger was there to say: We know that death will happen. And we know we’re going to be okay. But then the other [part of me], my heart just broke. And what I realized is: that breaking was the most important part of the experience. I had to be broken. I had to be broken open.
There’s a kind of mythic template in a lot of the work that I do: the story of Isis and Osiris. This idea of death and fragmentation and scattering. And then: what does it mean to remember? The idea of someone purposing themselves to go gather the pieces, bring those pieces back together, and resurrect them, in the sense of shining light, through an active memory — I’m thinking about Toni Morrison, and that sense of our deliberate engagement with what has been lost, or who’s been lost.
I felt like every time we dealt with a new planet, I got to touch a different part of my grief. I would grieve my mom, but I would also grieve the time period that I would remember something about her in. So there are a couple songs that come out of the period of music and culture that I felt most attached to, which is that late seventies to the mid eighties soul music, dance music, electric, boogie, disco, all that stuff. And I could close my eyes when we were making it, and remember being a kid, doing dances for my mom. So the grief would come up every time, but I was making an offering to celebrate that thing.
But there was one song, which was Saturn, which was deliberately to her. In terms of the astrological meanings, historically, of the planets, Saturn is the planet that controls time. It’s the task master. It’s the one that deprives you of something in order to teach you. And as I was considering [the solar system], I said, Saturn is the point of no return. I imagined if the soul were leaving the solar system, that’s the point where you had to leave your memories. You had to leave your name. You had to leave whatever had accrued in your lifetime, and you couldn’t go back. You couldn’t look back.
We worked around that song, we got up close to that song, but I couldn’t write [the lyrics]. Nothing fit. And it wasn’t until the very, very, very, very end of our time together that I got in front of the mic, and everything just came out. And I wept after I sang it. That’s the only take that I did. I couldn’t do another. That was the place where my grief came out, in sound.
I think of the whole project as a kind of offering. My hope is that it is a space where people can come. And stealthily, it really is about grief. Because we move from the sun rising, that first song — and that’s The Fifth Dimension, that’s my mom, those harmonies — everything about that is this splendid invocation of hopefulness. And then we end with the origin of an angel. I thought: that’s what she becomes, that’s what you end up as. But it’s a hard lyric, you know. It’s a sense that something’s been transmogrified, and it’s not going back the other way.
JL: That last thing you said segues into question that came up for me when you were talking about memory, and Isis and Osiris. There’s an element of futurism that you’re dealing with. Which you talk about as Afromysticism, but it shares a lineage with Afrofuturism. And so I wonder: how do you conceptually, spiritually, and aesthetically square the circle of looking backwards and remembering, without falling into nostalgia or golden age-ism? While looking forwards, while living forwards? Which includes the things that change and don’t change back.
DAJ: The journey through the Duat, the underworld, is — as was true of many of the ancient spiritual traditions — a kind of puzzle. You had to figure out how to get from one point, to the next point, to the next point. And what’s the right spell to open the door; which one of the three figures that appears is the right figure to be talking to; what’s a demon, and what’s an angel. All of that kind of complexity.
Even for Osiris — Osiris becomes the Green God, the vegetative spirit, the one that is the controller of the floods. And he’s no longer a human being. He’s no longer what he was before.
But the memory, in a way, is the necessary conjure. It’s the thing that allows you to name the contours of what was holy to you, through your joy, through your passion, through your embodiment, tapping into all of what it means to be embodied. And that’s, I think, the planets themselves: the fire and the fight of Mars, or the erotics of Venus, or the heartfulness of Jupiter, or that rigidity, that tightness of Saturn.
Memory as nostalgia is related to the past as distanced. But at least in the Black American tradition that I became acculturated in, the past is in the present and the future. There’s a dynamic relationship. So when we talk about what happened, we’re not trying to go back to that place. We’re trying to conjure that place in the present moment as an element of how we live now. And the futurity of it for me is this question of immanence: where is it trembling in its becoming?
There’s a beautiful image from a book I studied while in Africana Studies many years ago, that talked about time in a general West African sense, meaning it bridged a number of the different cultures. In the West, the future is ahead of us and the past is behind us — and we are such a future oriented society. But in this [West African] idea, the past is what you see. We know what happened as best as we can, and we can look at it. So the way it was described is like a piece of fabric that’s been woven — you can look at the patterns of what has happened to you, and it stretches out before you, because you you’re actually moving backward through time. You can’t see the future — it’s coming in over your shoulders. And you weave those threads in real time.
I want to use the past as a way to orient myself to the edge of what I know, and then move into that imminent future.
JL: Perceiving, conjuring, studying, living with the past, as a way to experience presence. Where am I, what am I, what is this world that I’m in?
DAJ: Part of that comes, too, from the sense of what telling a story is about in the theater tradition I come up in, where it’s testimony. In Hollywood, [you get] the strings welling up when you’re telling a story, or we do a flashback. And the emphasis is: I’m going to relive something. But no, no, no, no, no, no, no. My mentors, all of them, [said] the reason you’re telling it now, I’m telling it to you, we’re in this space together because we need to be here now, and these stories are meant to make us more present here.
Two of my great mentors were in the original company of, for colored girls… And one of them, who we lost earlier this year, she was one of my art mothers, Robbie McCauley — one of the great, great artists of our time, I believe.
I’ve seen so many productions of, for colored girls…: colleges, community centers, professional productions, et cetera. And there’s a quintessential moment in the play where it’s the lady in red telling the story of Bo Willie. I think most people who’ve read that play know it: it’s the one where her love has come back from Vietnam, and he’s besieged by PTSD, and ends up killing her children. It’s a horrible moment. And more often than not, it’s a place where the actor goes into a place of reliving that pain. There’s a kind of chewing of that material and wresting out that grief and that rage. Which is fine. But it never sat right with me. Because that would then become the focal point of the whole piece. And the rest was denouement, with all of the women coming together around that figure, the lady in red, and reminding her that God is in her, God is in all of them.: “I saw God and myself and I loved her fiercely.”
And so I asked Robbie — this was in Minneapolis, and she was hanging out with me at my place — and I said, Robbie, is that what it was like? Is that what you did? Cause she played that part: she took over on Broadway when the original actor left.
And she looked to the side, and then she looked back at me, and she said: “There was no air…” She started the monologue! This is from how many decades before? And she told it to me. And she said “This happened. And then this. And then, oh, he came in here. And then this happened, and then the children, and then he was acting strange,” and it kept building and it kept building and it kept building with more information and then she said: “and then he got to the window, and I told him, and he held the children, and he dropped them,” and then boom. I practically fell out the chair. Because then the emotion was in me. What she had done was to tell the story as a testimony, which the character needed to do at that moment in the rite of the play.
It was one of the most instructive moments for me: the past uttered in the present is uttered for purpose.
And that’s the danger of sentiment: if the past is behind you, then it pulls you back. But if the past is in front of you, it becomes a thing that you can point to, to teach me, the person who’s listening to that story, why that story is so important to you.
JL: I’d like to connect that to a larger idea of yours that was really resonating with me while reading through the recent books. What you’re pointing to with that story is that the monologue really happens in the imagination of the listener. What she’s doing by delivering it in that way is letting you have it here [in your mind], and then for that to fall into your body.
And I connect that with something you talk about in your conversation with Alexis Pauline Gumbs [in Particle and Wave]. You talked about the squiggle in your eye, [that puts a blur in your vision and makes you see the world a certain way], and you talk about the particularity of people’s vision as a kind of gift. Now, there is something extremely trusting as a performer to let the performance happen in the particularity of everybody’s minds. But there’s also something so miraculous about the fact that everybody’s going to hear it and see it and feel it differently. And if it happens in the audience, as opposed to on the stage, we all get to experience that difference, and that particularity.
DAJ: 100%. That’s exactly it. I think so very much of that as a purpose among many of the jazz artists that influenced me and the others that I’ve worked with. I mention Alice Coltrane a bunch in my writing, but I think about Betty Carter as well.
What I loved about watching my mentors on stage was that I could feel their intellect crackling in the room. I could feel that they were actively piecing this work together for me as an audience. They weren’t here for themselves. They were here to create something in that room. And I believe in seeing multiply, I believe in a kind of multivalence, that if there are 75 people in that room, there are going to be 75 different subjective experiences of it. And so in some way, if you’ll go with me here, [the performer is] conducting, they’re actually conducting that unfolding, and playing the imaginations of the room as the instrument.
And that is what a lot of times gets lost. Because of sexism and racism and the marginalization of these writers, people lose that when they look at these texts. They’re like, oh, that’s slam poetry. I’m like, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. There is a deep ritual container. And if you sit with the reality of how that work unfolds, I think you can see it in Laurie [Carlos], Robbie [McCauley], and Jessica Hagedorn’s work. They were playing us as the instrument, and [the language] was the medium through which they did it. They were not playing it to have some reverie of a story that happened to them.
JL: To fixate on the reverie, or even the language, as opposed to the effect of the language, or the language’s rippling through the air, is like the old thing about pointing to the moon, but looking at the hand.
JL: Which is maybe an artless segue back into the cosmos.
I wanted to ask about channeling. You’ve talked about Jomama Jones as a kind of force that you channel. And you’ve also talked about how a binding agent in your theater work is that you love the people you’re writing. And so I wonder: what it has felt like, or taken, to channel and love planets?
DAJ: My dear friend Rhonda Ross sings on the song that’s talking about Earth. And one of Rhonda’s favorite sayings is: “this is grown folks business.” We’ve been friends for 30 years, and one of the things I so appreciate about our friendship is that we’ve [watched each other struggle] to learn how to be grown folks.
And our lives are so different. She’s a mom, she has a husband, she has a really thriving, multilayered career. I’m single, I’ve not chosen that life, I’ve been a workaholic my whole time, but I’ve been balancing all these projects that don’t fit any mainstream anything. And in the meantime, it’s like: wait a minute, what’s a savings account? How do you do that? What are those practical things?
On a deeper, more philosophical level, there is the recognition that we both have of growing up children of parents who were grounded in post-war, through the fifties, into the civil rights movement, charged with certain values, charged with certain rebellious energies and some conformist energies. And there were ways in which we had to say: do we want to be grown in the same way as our parents and our other community members that raised us? Where do we need to be different? Because we realize the landscape is different, and we might have to make different kinds of choices.
And one of the things that my friend has been so helpful to me with is dealing with those places of such profound disappointment, or betrayal or loss. As an artist, this is a hard road to walk. Emotionally and spiritually. It’s hard, no matter how wonderful a face we put on it.
And I bring that up to say that there are different pockets that almost feel like the different energy centers that might, for example, be coded in the chakra system, or the solar system. I think about that song, Pluto. Something happened writing that song, where I was like: this really helps me orient myself as a grown person to the losses and the betrayals that I’ve had. There’s that line: “You said it was forever, but you change your mind. Now I’m all alone in time, floating in space in a circle with no end, but I’ll always be your friend.” That is a place for me as a grown person: I don’t stop loving people. I don’t stop. I was able to find the way to put that in that lyric, and it surprised me. It shocked me. [And I realized]: that’s why it’s so hard for me when somebody leaves in my life, because that love doesn’t go away.
That’s one example. But my conversation over all those years with Rhonda was a lot like that. So I knew I wanted her on [the Earth] song, cause we’ve been talking a lot about Earth — obviously the things we all are concerned about around the climate, but even more so about what is our compact as living beings with our planet? I think about the cultural traditions where that is central to your ideation of what an identity is, versus where we are [in this culture]. So those were the things that came up for Earth.
For Venus, “Child of Venus” where my friend Adelina made that beautiful video with her nephew who’s a skater, [there’s an] idea of: what about these beautiful, beautiful young people who are coming here with such open hearts? How do I say to them: trust that that’s good; don’t shut your heart off.
Each one of the planets has brought me back in touch with a question. Many of them I haven’t figured out yet as a grown folk — I’m 51, but I still don’t know. Saturn and I are still in a conversation, I’ll put it that way.
But there are some things I do now know, and it felt also important to stand in that. In our youth obsessed culture, it’s very easy, even internally, to say, “oh, I don’t know, I don’t know how I did that.” But I do know what I’m doing in terms of this creative practice. I’m making choices that are deliberate. So let me stand with them.
JL: Can you talk about the relationship between, on one hand, making deliberate choices as an experienced, intentional artist, and, on the other, practices of channeling and reception?
DAJ: I go right back to this idea of a jazz aesthetic, which was coined by Aishah Rahman. She said there are precepts of jazz music and culture. You don’t have to have jazz music playing anywhere — it’s not about the music per se, it’s about the structures. So it includes improvisation and spontaneity, it includes ideas about melody and variation, it includes ideas about angularity, asymmetry, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
That said, one of the key things is virtuosity: you have to be able to do your thing with precision. So if I’m writing, I better know my language, and I better know what language does. If I’m devising in a room, I better understand something about communication and about spatial relationship, et cetera, et cetera. The idea is you get really, really good at making marks of one kind or another, playing notes of one kind or another, doing gestural work of one kind or another, with precision, so that what your utterance manifests as is as clearly connected to your impulse as humanly possible.
But then: you enter into a dynamic relationship with the unknown. So actually you are not willing your subjective vision, as much as you are using your subjective capacity to respond to the environment, to the moment in time, and to the stimuli that are coming both from without and from within. So improvisation is central, but anybody who is a real improviser will tell you, you got to know every possible outcome so that you don’t step into the abyss.
That’s the joy of it to me. Think about those players who attain what we now call mastery, where they’re just able to go on these flights — I’d think about someone who I wrote about in the introduction to Love Like Light, that I always go back to, Sarah Vaughan. Sarah Vaughan would improvise with such delight in herself. She just loved her voice, and loved her instrument, and loved her musicianship, so that she enjoyed getting out there and playing so much. If you ever look at footage of her in flight, the looks between her and her players are some of the most loving looks imaginable, because they’re all like: I just outdid myself, didn’t I? It’s that vibe.
So in answer to your question, for me, the maturity is not that I’m turning out Pop-Tarts, like I’m giving you the same thing, like “a Daniel Alexander Jones play will look like this.” I hope not. [Instead] the maturity is that I’m going to be as present as I possibly can be to the question at hand. And you’ll be able to trust, as somebody who is interested in my work, that I’m always going to be present to the question.
And I don’t know what it’ll look like. I didn’t know that these things [in the Aten project] were going to spin out. Like I told you, I thought this was going to be a Jomama album. I didn’t know I was going to be singing, or these other personae were going to be coming out. I didn’t know that — but here they came.
JL: You’ve talked about your experience of Jomama before, but as it specifically relates to this album, where is Daniel and where is Jomama in the writing and the performing?
DAJ: I felt her so profoundly in the sun and in the outer planets. It’s almost like she was the superstructure of the record. We had a wig made for her that was this braid wig. And the person who constructed it found all of these incredible beads that resemble the planets. And so in some way I feel like she was like that wig. She carried all of the whole story with her, but then she’d toss one over and let me catch it, and then I got to do one, or some other persona.
I’m thinking about Jupiter. We had this video where I actually paid tribute to my late uncle, who was such a fascinating human being. In the video, I re-imagined a disco that he used to own when I was a kid in the seventies. He was a hustler, A-number one, and he had this incredible disco, named after my cousin Ursula. And as a little kid, I would go with my dad to run errands on Saturdays, to see my grandmother, and go see my uncle. And I’d be there [at the disco], and they’d prop me up at the bar and give me a Shirley Temple. And sometimes, you know, the ladies of the evening would be there coming off shift, and they would hang out and rub my head and be like, “you’re a cute little boy,” and stuff.
But there was that vibe in many Black communities, that club that you go to. And that’s where the local performer does their song, and that’s where all kinds of things happened, in the dark and in the light. And when I thought about Jupiter, and that the idea of this magnanimous energy, the planet of abundance, the one that unlocks the way — in my grieving for my mom, I was also grieving all of the ones that I’ve lost. And she and my uncle were very close. My mom in many ways was a very sheltered person; she didn’t leave Springfield a lot. But my uncle had traveled the whole world, and he’d lived everywhere. He was a Merchant Marine, so he went everywhere. But they were both brilliant people: working class, regular people who could talk about the whole world. So there was this dynamism and excitement whenever they got together.
And so I said: he was like Jupiter. So the refrain is: “I got my eye on you.” He and my father would always say, “I’m keeping a pair of eyes on you.” They were part of that generation of Black men who took care of the community, and largely did it quietly. They just kept an eye on things. And if something went awry, they took care of it. If somebody needed something, they made sure they had it. They were protectors. They were the quality that I feel like is so rarely represented in the media about Black men in general, but in particular that generation.
So it was a no-brainer: that’s who this [song] is for. But when I got to the mic to start singing, all of a sudden it went down into my bass-baritone voice. I don’t sing there very much anymore. Josh looked to me like: “who are you? What is that sound?” It was like Barry White, or Lou Rawls coming out. And I said hell yeah, that’s who needs to come through here. So that became the persona for the song, and it became the persona for the video.
In a way, the planet was the dictator. It told me which part of my body needed to be activated, what part of the voice. And I’m happy about it — I feel like it unlocked a whole different universe. And Jo was overseeing all of it, but she didn’t need to be in all of it.
JL: I want to pivot a little bit to talk about ceremony, which is something you talk a lot about in your writings. I have a constellation of questions here. I’m first interested in hearing you talk, in a basic way, about ceremony: what does that word mean to you, how does it feel?
And I’m interested in how that plays into this particular project, where the altar space you’ve made is a digital one, and the pieces you’ve made exist as recorded entities, as opposed to live entities. With what you were talking about before, about the event happening in the audience, how do you conceive of that when you’re working in a digital space and with recorded media?
DAJ: When I even hear ceremony, I feel something is heightened in me, or quickened in me. It’s so much a part of the neighborhood I grew up in. You’ve heard that phrase pride of place, right? People took pride in our street. They took pride in themselves. And there was always a sense that when you walked out the front door, you were kind of going on stage. There was a little bit of lift in it. And for sure in the institutions, whether they be the community centers, schools, the churches — I didn’t grow up in the church, but they were around a lot, and that was all the pomp and the ceremony as well. Even going to school back then, it wasn’t a relaxed thing. You went school shopping, you were dressed up a little bit, and there was a formality to it.
And I actually believe that some of that was so important in terms of teaching what it meant to be a person in community. It wasn’t about putting on airs, although for some people it was. More it was about lifting up into and offering the part of yourself that was the best you could do at that time. And that sense of lift meant that interactions had a formality around them.
The late great Dr. Barbara Ann Teer once told me “be aware of collapsing domains,” i. e. that there are certain structures and forms that have an integrity to them for a reason. They perform a function. And as you are stirring things up and experimenting, remember that honey is still honey, and water is still water, and they have their own magic. And you can do with them things that might not normally be done with them, but don’t try to erase their truth.
So with that in mind, when I’m building an altar, I enter it in a ceremonial fashion. So if I’m doing it in real life — and I just did one for the project, we did one down at New York Live Arts, we built it on one of the walls upstairs — I enter reverently. I’m putting this here with intention, and I’m putting this here with intention. And kind of like the stories from the past we were talking about earlier, it does have particular meaning for me, but I’m deliberately purposing it for someone to encounter when I’m not there. The idea is that there is some particular energy or set of particular energies that are conjured by that configuration of objects, which is informed by my intention. Now that intention may not be a one-to-one translation to you if you go and see it. But you’ll feel that lift — this is not just a picture on a wall: it’s charged.
I built the digital experience with that in mind. It is charged with my intention, and then you are going to come to it and have your own [experience]. What’s different for me is that the performance is not happening in vivo, in time, as a collective gathering. The performances are happening outside of time, in these loops, and they become a kind of object that I’ve purposed in the larger altar.
The Aten website is still unfolding — it’s not going to be done until December. And even then, we’re going back and we’re going to continue to let it open and add and be responsive. It’s a living space. And everyone who comes to engage with it [can choose] the degree that they wish to [engage with it]. They can get all up in it, or they can touch one part of it, and that’s fine. And I love that. I’ve actually found that to be one of the most liberating experiences I’ve had as an artist, because I feel so much freer about the offering of the work. I’m giving this, and then people will find in it, hopefully, the medicine that they need. I don’t feel like I have to be there [saying] “this meant X, this meant Y.” It meant that to me, good. But I trust that there’s an integrity in it that will welcome you in, and that the ceremony surrounds every aspect of it.
I want to keep exploring this kind of hybrid space. It feels that’s where I’m drawn right now. Not that I won’t do live performance, but there’s something about [working in this hybrid digital form] that’s calling to me now.
JL: Do you have glimmers of where you’re being called towards, or what the next gravitational pull is?
DAJ: I think in some ways it is a continuation of this conversation about lineage. I’ve been really interested in what happened with Jupiter, in relation to my own journey. Because I’ve always been what my friend Sharon Bridgforth calls genderqueer. I’ve always been very fluid in my embodiment. And it has been a very challenging aspect of grown folks business to figure out what a man is for me.
I feel myself to be on that pathway, even as that remains a very porous and an active and changing thing. But part of the puzzle of my being here feels like, well, if you are engaging that question, what would it look like for you? So I’ve been thinking about these people who popped up in this project, who sang Pluto, who sang Jupiter: who are these aspects of Daniel? And what would happen if I let him really spread out and say some things? What might be different than what I’ve done before?
This is another thing that’s been with me my whole life — whenever a question rises up, there’s that little nudge of: well, you gotta deal with this thing. And I’m like, “no, I don’t wanna!” I still have that part of me that just wants to pull the covers over.
But the bravery [to face it] comes from my ancestors who push me. They’re like: come on now. And they’ve got me. They’ve taken care of me. To be able to be in this place as someone who’s done something that is so far afield from any commercial or mainstream anything, is a result of, I believe, their investment in me. There’s no mystery to me that this is not about Daniel. This is about continuing this set of conversations. I don’t think I am originating this way of working at all. But I am extending the tradition, and maybe adding my own flavors and colors to it.
But part of that tradition is, you got to run on and see what you don’t know. You can’t stay with what you know. There’s a beautiful book about Alice Coltrane’s life by Franya Berkman called Monument Eternal. I highly recommend you reading that book. But [it has] this sense of, you’re going to suffer in life. And you can suffer and get smaller, or you can suffer and expand.
For me, the place of greatest emotional pain in my life has been that I’ve never had reciprocal, romantic love. I’ve never had it. It’s a lot to do, I think, with the fact that I don’t match any category. I’m not legible. There was a song back in the nineties called “32 Flavors and Then Some” — I’m a lot of flavors. I’m a lot of person. And I think that that is in some ways connected to the moment that we’re in historically. Gender, when I was coming up, was an absolute binary in the public sphere. And now it’s so highly codified, it’s becoming so particular. And in both cases, something that doesn’t land and stay is still a problem. And that’s what I want to dive into.
So for me, it’s also about healing that aspect of myself. Aten was very much about grief, and this I think is about solitude. The images that keep coming to me are the Hermit and the Magician, the solitary figures that somehow still find a way to bring what they’re supposed to bring to the planet.
JL: What you’re saying about gender specifically, but also about the unknown, and multiplicity — the image of Osiris feels resonant with that. If a person gets broken into pieces, there’s an expansion in that as well.
DAJ: I think that that entire myth is somehow in my DNA. And I’ve known it since I was little little. But in order to do it, you have to do all parts of the myth.
I spent a lot of time in my late twenties into my thirties really digging into the figure of Set, without even knowing it. [Set is] the one who killed Osiris. [He’s] the jealous brother. [I was looking at Set] by looking at the violence levied against the civil rights and freedom movement, and thinking about the destruction of my community during Ronald Reagan and all that came afterward. I went to the wound and the one who wounded.
And then I spent a lot of time with Isis, the resurrector. But I think it is time to be with the Osiris figure. What does it mean to become that other side?
JL: It’s an exciting turning point, I look forward to seeing wherever it leads you.
I’m interested in hearing you talk about invitation, because it shows up a couple of times in your writing. There’s this idea that the ceremony is built in this heightened place of different perception. And so you need an invitation to the audience to bring them in. And you talk about it in two ways, and I found both of them very interesting. One is that the invitation has the ability to wrench us from our ordinary capitalist, settler-colonial informed ontology and sense of what we’re looking at, which includes the commodity of the art object. But it also allows people a way into work that might be labeled “difficult.” And I really agree with you when you say that when we call work “difficult,” we’re generally doing a gross disservice to people, assuming to whom the work is and isn’t accessible. So I’m interested in your strategies of invitation, either in this piece or more generally, for doing those two actions.
DAJ: Number one, it begins with a deep respect for the humanity of any individual who comes into the orbit of the work. What that manifests as is in this particular project is aesthetically offering, like you would offer a guest who comes to your home: let me take your jacket, here’s something to drink, come in. There are hopefully cues from the colors that we use on the site, that we were very particular about choosing; the way that it moves; even in the presentation of the videos, there’s a certain formality to how they open. I’m always wanting something to drink or eat, you know? So I like the idea that there’s something beautiful that we give you, even if we’re going to lead you into a heavy place.
And I think about with Saturn, which is such a heavy song, it still starts with that beautiful Victrola. So you can look at something that invites you in. And then we invite you in through the Victrola horn to the content of the main video.
But in live performance, it absolutely is the literal welcome that you make to people. The most successful experience I had at that was doing our show Black Light at Joe’s Pub and The Public. Shanta [Thake] and I were so adamant that every aspect of that experience be one where people felt seen and welcomed. Joe’s Pub is a cabaret space, so they serve food and drink along with the show happening. So it was important to us that every one of the servers, we met them, we knew their name, they knew who we were, that we were workers together. And mind you, I know it’s not the same to be washing dishes as being on the stage. But I made sure to say to them repeatedly: we see that you are working, and we want to make sure our show doesn’t impede your work. But we also want you to know you are a part of the show, whether you elected to be or not. So how can we all be in here together?
And then everybody who comes to the show — it’s a hallmark of Jomama that she always has light in the room, so that you are seeing across. And even when I stage work in proscenium spaces, I always try to disrupt it as much as I can, to make sure that we see each other. And what ended up happening is, and to this day I’m still so moved by this, the people who worked at the Pub held that space with us. They knew, down to the millisecond, when to pause and when to move. They would actually fan out in the room during the heaviest point in the storytelling to be witnesses and to help the audience witness. It was astonishing. And they all felt like it was their show. They talked about it as theirs. And that was success to me.
That was a value that, for sure, came up out of my artistic training and out of the communities I was a part of in my earlier years. I’m thinking particularly of Austin: hospitality was a big deal, because none of us had no money! But we could offer food, we could offer a joyful welcome.
I can’t say enough how I feel like the reason the theater is in such trouble — it’s complicated — but one of the biggest things is people don’t feel welcome. They’re treated like consumers, and they’re insulted at every level of the experience. The priorities are so wrong, and the humanity has been insulted for so long, that the purpose of why we’re even gathering is in question. And it doesn’t matter how beautiful an individual piece is, if it’s happening in a context where for people to get to it they’ve been made an object.
JL: As an artist, it puts so the onus on you to try to take that apart within the first 10 minutes of the show.
DAJ: That’s why I’m lucky with Jomama. Because she’s just got an energy about her. People soften to her, even mean people, they somehow melt. But I think that’s part of the structure. The ceremony gets initiated with the welcome, and then the turn — she invariably will be in that room, on that stage, identifying with the people who are in the audience, not centering herself. People think it’s going to be about her, but it always ends up being about them. And that’s what I think congregational or community ceremony does: it emphasizes our collective presence.
JL: It seems to me there’s an act of faith to let that congregation occur in a digital space, where we’re separated and unaware of who else is in the room with us. As an artist that takes so much trust, to trust that that space will still be created, even if it’s taking a different shape.
DAJ: Was there an album that you loved as a young person, where it was a place that you went and journeyed?
JL: I would say George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass.
DAJ: Yes! Amazing. Well, I think of [Aten] like that — I hope it becomes a place you go to. And there will be meaning, something will accrue. If it works, it’ll do that. I have faith in it because I had a lot of those records, like you talk about with George Harrison, where I’m a hundred percent sure that the meanings that I’ve attached to, you know, an Angela Bofill album, have nothing to do with what anybody involved in making that thing meant. But I bet that the spirit with which they made it went through me, and the stories I built around it and the attachments I’ve made to it are true to the spirit of it. And that’s where the faith is for me.
I’ve had such a deep relationship with objects that were not about live performance. And it’s been great to be able to start making objects that are not about live performance, but informed by 30 years of live performance.
JL: That reminds me of what you were saying about the altar. When I encounter the altar, it’s clear, it’s an intentional object. My interaction with it, and the meaning that I get from it, is quite personal and idiosyncratic, but it’s the result of the intention and energy that you’ve put into it.
DAJ: If there were a thing that I would take away from this incredible conversation, it’s that you’ve really helped me feel again how invested I am in that idiosyncratic experience. I don’t want people to take the same thing away. I’ve never wanted that. And that was always a kind of artistic director or literary manager complaint about me. I want [whatever I’m making] to be specific, but I am not trying to curate someone’s meaning. I’m just not.
JL: Instead, connect somebody with their own meaning, and their own experience of experience. Which maybe leads me to my last lingering thought, which is something about shadow. Light is such a central image for you, in this conversation and in your work as I’ve experienced it. But I’m thinking about shadow as it relates to ambiguity, and slipperiness, and the feeling that this is not only one thing.
A touchstone for me is a Japanese book of aesthetics from the thirties called In Praise of Shadows, [by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki]. It’s about the aesthetic of murkiness, of the bowl of soup that you can’t see through, and what that gives as an aesthetic experience.
And so I wonder: what role does darkness or shadow or the hidden play in your work, or your thinking about your work?
DAJ: There’s a line at the end of a section of my play Duat, where I put the goddess Ma’at on stage — my friend, Stacy Robinson played it and killed it every night, she’s amazing — she says: “I pray for you,” speaking to everyone gathered, “that the coming darkness is a womb, not a tomb.” And I think of that as my response to your inquiry. In many ways, I feel like I’ve lived in so much darkness. I’ve lived in the shadow of the civil rights movement and the freedom movement, and their waning at the hands of such great violence. I’ve lived in the shadow of this growing right-wing tyrannical metastasized shift in our nation. I’ve lived in the shadow of loneliness. I’ve lived in the shadow of non-conformity.
So many times in my life, I’ve had the experience of arriving at a thing, whether it be a classroom and the teacher retires, or I receive an award and that award stops happening after I got it: I’ve been at the end of a lot of things. And I always wondered why I was in that place, as someone who is so enamored of light.
But I believe that I am purposed with this sense of understanding that it is out of that womb that light is born. What we make is sounded from that void. I feel like I’m a consciousness that lives in that space between. And maybe part of why I’ve emphasized the light is because I want to remember, and I want to demonstrate through this work, and I pray through my life, that it is our responsibility to conjure that light. It’s that quote from Normandi Ellis: set up a light in the darkness. It’s our job.
The truth is, when you talk about space, it’s not a void. It’s full of stars. But there’s great distance. That distance is temporal and spatial. And we are gifted with the ability to see, whether it is through sighted eyes or through a kind of perception that comes from other senses, we’re gifted with the ability to see across time. And that cannot happen without darkness. There’s no such thing as only light.
For my show Radiate that I did many years ago at Soho Rep, because I love a seventies variety show, I wanted an all white set. So Arnulfo Maldonado built an all white set. And our lighting designer was like: “Fuck y’all! What have you done to me? I can’t do any shadow! Everything bounces!” And I was like: “Yeah, that’s the whole idea.”
I think we’re in such a time of shadow. But what I fear, what I’ve seen happen, is when we become enamored of the shadow, and we seed our courage to it — that’s problems.