Loud. Black. Resident Part I: In Conversation with Dr. Omi Osun Joni L. Jones by Arielle Julia Brown

IMAGE COURTESY OF DR. JONES

IMAGE COURTESY OF DR. JONES

Arielle Julia Brown: What is your name? Give us a bit of an overview of your work.

Dr. Omi Osun Joni L. Jones: I am Omi Osun Joni L. Jones and I am an artist scholar.  My work has focused on several areas that overlap. I am interested in Black performance, more specifically Black Diasporic performance. I’ve been most interested in Yoruba based areas so, of course, Southwestern Nigeria, but in addition to that, spaces where Yoruba aesthetic and Yoruba spirituality are prominent, so places like Cuba and certain regions of the United States.

My work as an artist has often been connected to the ways that art can prod us to think, feel, and know more deeply, and create contestation even amongst the audience witnesses.

The scholarly work that I do attempts to make the scholarship itself embodied on the page so that I encourage a different reading practice rather than a linear reading practice. That kind of scholarship is made most clear in my book, Theatrical Jazz, Performance, Àṣẹ and the Power of the Present Moment.

AJB: Tell me more about your curatorial process and your process of making work in non-traditional performance spaces. I would like to hear more about how your work with these spaces shifts audience witness relationships.

OOJLJ: I am very excited about doing performance work in, I’ll call them non-theatrical spaces, because once audience-witnesses engage with the space - the site where the work is going to be shared - they bring with them a host of expectations around what is permissible in those spaces and locations. I want to disrupt that. I do like bringing work into spaces where people would not think of doing theater, such as gymnasiums, museums, recreation centers - spaces that encourage standing and walking and moving about rather than sitting still so that the space becomes amoeba-like, morphing as the people who are present interact and mold them as opposed to the kind of fixed experience of most theater.

When I was director of the Warfield Center for African American Studies at the University of Texas, I curated a number of performances and I was also the curator for the gallery. It’s interesting that so many of the performances that I curated were presented in rather conventional theatrical spaces. Some of the performers in those spaces did a lot to try to reconfigure them. I remember when Sharon Bridgforth did a very early version of what came to be a piece called River See through the performing Blackness series at the University of Texas. She took a black box space and made two rows of audience witnesses facing each other so that there was a long sort of narrow performance space between the audience that sat on either side. That was a different way to think about how a conventional theater can function. Disrupting the predictability of audience-witnesses and the passivity of traditional theater spaces is really important to me. I think it is a necessary ingredient to transformation.

AJB: That seems similar to your work in the Theatrical Jazz Aesthetic. Do you see yourself having a value system or a particular politic around curating Black site specific performance?

OOJLJ: I should say first that I don’t think of my work as site specific in the way that I think many people use that term.  For instance, Ralph lemon has done some really exciting site specific work; he has created performances in sites where there had been lynchings for example. Joanna Haigood, here in San Francisco did a magnificent piece based on a 19th century Black woman who was very prominent in San Francisco at the time. She had the piece travel along Market street on the sidewalk and people had to make decisions to stop and look, to be annoyed that this was going on, to engage with it and so on. Amara Tabor Smith did an incredible tribute to dancer and choreographer Ed Mock, and in that performance she performed at locations significant to Mock in very particular ways.  

I have not yet done work that is site specific in that way. Much of my work has been affiliated with academic institutions and my desire has been to pierce those sites with Black sensibilities. My desire has been to transform predominantly white academic spaces into places where Blackness reigns. That is done with Black bodies. It’s done with sound. It’s done with sound not only in music but volume and quality. It’s done with paint. What are the aesthetics within the space? If I thought about my work as site specific, the sites that I have been interested in dismantling or re-imagining have been academic sites. I have done this work by selecting those performers and works that would do just that- disrupt our idea of what performance is. They would disrupt our idea of what Black is. They would disrupt how white institutions were relating to Blackness.

AJB: What is resonant frequency and how have you come to understand this concept?

OOJLJ: I have become dissatisfied with empathy and identification as the primary tools for the transformation that art can make. And I think this may be more true in theater than in other forms because theater employs the body and sound. It often employs narrative; it has a visual; it pulls on so many of the art forms. Because of its real adherence to the idea of a narrative and realism, especially in the US context, I think empathy and identification have been important. Realism asks that we identify with the characters whose psychology we understand and maybe that connects them with who we are. Empathy is similar to me because even if we don’t identify with, we empathize with because we feel with them.

I think that those things are true and they are valid. They are also hit or miss. You don’t know if empathy is being generated or if identification is happening. I also think they can take a lot of time. I wanted to consider something else and thought that by bringing people from disparate backgrounds together, that something happens just in the presence of one another. It’s like being on the bus.  You’re there with children, you’re there with elders, you may be on the bus with homeless people, you may be on the bus with executives. There’s just a range and something happens to us when we share proximity with people of any background but particularly people who are different from us. This feeling ultimately led me to physics and to the concept of resonant frequency. It acknowledges that we are all molecules that are moving and continually active.

So, if you place those molecules in a container and they begin to bump into each other, you introduce a stimulus and those molecules can pick up the vibration of the other molecules so that they are resonating together. It’s a little like if you have a tuning fork and you strike it, the two sides of the tuning fork are going to now vibrate together, doing something together that they weren’t doing when they weren’t struck. So, I’m chewing on this idea that if we get audience witnesses in a room, particularly a non-theatrical room, because then we disrupt expectations and we introduce a stimulus that requires them to work together in that performance, then our chances of unconscious resonating which still transforms us, are higher.  That unconscious resonating may be more lasting.  I’m not so sure about that, but it doesn’t require that we construct just the right character, just the right story to generate empathy or create identification. Instead maybe what we can think about is, what are the bodily experiences that would push us to make something together with people

Indeed, those works were a part of an un articulated philosophy that the more we can encourage audience engagement, the more we can release audience-witnesses some of their expectations, the more likely we are to create spaces where people can explore themselves and one another with a kind of freedom. This way we are less stuck in our own identity when we confront something that is unfamiliar.

I recently was the dramaturg for an extraordinary production of August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean directed by Daniel Alexander Jones for the Marin Theatre Company. He employed a lot of Theatrical Jazz strategies in that work, a play that many would say exists primarily as realism. The strategy that he directly employed with the actors was the use of non-mimetic gestures in the act of storytelling so the actors would do these gestures that didn’t appear to have anything to do with what they were saying. Every time one of those non mimetic gestures came up, it bumped against whatever well- formed idea of Blackness that audience was walking though. It’s like throwing in the blue note. It’s just a bit of dissonance, the thing that makes you go “what?” you kinda go “huh?”

And I think we need, in the United States, we need to rethink everybody. We need to kind of cock our heads and go “who? What?” because the way that we have calcified our understanding of who we are leads to the killing of Black folks because they happen to be Black and to the rape of women because they happen to be women.  It’s reinforcing an idea about non-humanity rather than encouraging a deep palpitated messy humbling, deeply humbling sense of humanity.

AJB: How are you applying resonant frequency in your Theatrical Jazz book tour or with your exchange work in Austin and San Francisco? Do you see a relationship between black displacement and site specific performance in these works?

OOJLJ: I am excited to explore resonant frequency with the work that I’m doing with students here on gentrification and black out-migration in San Francisco. I have six undergrad students who have traveled from UT Austin to study a phenomenon that’s happening all around the country - Black people being displaced while cities are frankly catering to those incoming residents who have more financial resources. I did this project once in 2014. We are working in the African American Art and Culture Complex. I think we have the students as ethnographers and as performers in different locations in the space. The audience rotates from location to location engaging in different activities in the space that deal with gentrification, Black out migration, and Black displacement.

. Some of this grew out of work that I did at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts which also used this idea of gentrification, displacement, and out migration as a framework. I had people who didn’t know each other pair up and tell each other a story. One participant had to tell their partner about the most exciting thing that happened in their neighborhood and the other had to draw that experience. Then, those two persons had to imagine creating a neighborhood together, and jointly draw a neighborhood.  Afterwards, all the pairs had to put those different neighborhoods together. I’m still thinking that enacting this process  together makes a difference. I’m playing with that idea. I tested it out with my class at UT Austin and it was interesting. No surprise, it got harder once the group was bigger. Is there a way to help people to collaborate? What do we need make collaboration successful?

On the book tour, we have been doing book parties. In fact one is coming up in Chicago. And we’re all going to get in there and dance together. I’m picking some of my favorite music and periodically the music will stop. I’ll read a brief section from the book and then start the music again.  Some other performers will do a small performance and then we’ll dance again. It will feel more like a celebration. So it’s not a traditional book tour. It’s not in a bookstore. It honors a lot of artists. It’s honoring other performers in their thing. I call it a collaborative ethnography. It’s about all those people who are represented in this work.

AJB: Who do you find to be doing interesting Black site specific black performance work?

OOJLJ: Artists: Wura Natasha Ogunji, Brett Cook, Theaster Gates, Chinaka Hodge, Ebony Stewart, Marc Bamuthi Joseph  

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Omi Osun Joni L. Jones is an artist/scholar and an Associate Professor in the African and African Diaspora Studies Department at the University of Texas at Austin. Jones’s scholarship focuses on performance ethnography, theatrical jazz, Yoruba-based aesthetics, Black Feminisms, and activist theatre.  Her print scholarship has appeared in Text and Performance Quarterly, Theatre Topics, The Drama Review, Theatre Journal, and Black Theatre News. Her original performances include “sista docta”—a critique of the academy, and “Searching for Osun”—a performance ethnography around Yoruba identity.  She is a member of the Urban Futures Network at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, and is co-editor of Experiments in a Jazz Aesthetic: Art, Activism, Academia, and the Austin Project.  Her most recent book, Theatrical Jazz:  Performance, Àṣẹ, and the Power of the Present Moment, was released through Ohio State University Press in May, 2015. Theatrical Jazz can be purchased here.