What happens when we need to accept that the sky is falling all around us? Oct 23, 2017
A response to Night Flowers: An Evening with Jomama Jones
By Ryan Diaz
All the new thinking is about loss.
In this it resembles all the old thinking.
—Robert Haas, “Meditation at Lagunitas”
I didn't know it at the time, but Jomama Jones knew I needed to talk. More than that, she knew I needed a good talking to.
As the buzz of the gathering audience simmered down and the stage light settled on a hazy morning glow, Jomama Jones fluttered into the light mid-croon. She assumed her place in the firmament amongst her accompanists in a dreamy ballad to a flower blooming under stars then the queen of the night began her interlude.
She introduced herself: her modest life in a Swedish villa, her sojourn from the flashy life she lived as a pop star. She asked if any of us, like her, kept goats; launched into her fondness for animals; recalled a memory of beauty and death; segwayed into lessons learned from her youth defying her formidable Aunt Cleotha. It turns out, studying the makeup on corpses at the mortuary where Aunt Cleotha worked “wasn't the most wonderful way to learn makeup.”
If the imagery and humor, twirling between macabre, flirtatious, and whimsical seems unexpected, it made all the sense in the universe Jomama Jones constructed, a safe haven in the midst of the tumult raging beyond the theatre doors. The climate outside, both atmospheric and political, threatened to ruin all that we hold dear: from dry clothes to black lives and everything in between.
Through her work, Jomama Jones harnesses the familiar power of people hunkering down together in the midst of calamity, holding each other close by the fire, warmed by the power of story. Sometimes these stories are personal anecdotes that catch in the mind, or epics that tease the edges of exaggeration. Sometimes they erupt as ad-libbed banter, sometimes as meticulously crafted songs—all soothing as balm.
Summoning the story of Chicken Little and the perils of pulling the alarm too soon, Jomama Jones asked: what happens when the alarm must sound? What happens when we need to accept that the sky is falling all around us?
Along the way, the other characters that constellated Jomama Jones’ universe were humble and grand. Among them the aforementioned Aunt Cleotha; Jomama Jones’ stern grandmother bestowing three wisdoms and three gifts; the lyrical heart of George Washington Carver; Michael Jackson's pet monkey, Bubbles; even the Archangel Gabriel with his horn to signal the beginning of the end. But the most important character that night, however, was Death itself.
When we think about death it’s often the painful sort, the kind that tears apart our communities and our hearts—children in hoodies taken too soon, the death of spirit when women are harassed by men in positions of power or on the street. What if we let those deaths agitate us into calling for the death of bigotry and fear? Too much loss and we become indifferent, but what if apathy could die to make way for new ways of loving, the birth of compassion rising from the ashes. Loss can be a supernova instead of a catastrophe because we will no longer accept the death and loss of a compassionate humanity.
"We don't know how to deal with death," Jomama Jones said, "to process it, to hold that space for one another." We don’t create an environment from which to grow from loss; forcing ourselves to move on without understanding our pain and thus we "can never make vulnerable connection with anybody because [we] are afraid to lose again." But what if we did hold space? What if we managed loss with the respect it deserves, and learned its lessons? If fear of loss stifles connection, can experiencing loss instead make us stronger, fortify our openness to vulnerability?
The death of a beloved pet chicken can impart a commitment to justice. The death of a star yields its elements to give us our bodies and everything around us. Jomama Jones asked us if it would take the death of something as unwieldy as the concept of a Nation to truly make space for everyone. The death of what we regard as perpetual can be terrifying, but it might also be necessary.
What can we risk, what can we let go, and what tired bones can we put to rest? Take caution, however. Useful death does not mean accepting a loss that undoes our progress. Jomama Jones sings "I will not surrender," and I'm reminded of another icon who told us that she will survive.
In addressing and scanning the crowd for black faces like hers and finding only a handful, she reminded us that perhaps right now isn't the most wonderful time to have a political body. Towards the end, Jomama Jones reminded us that being black is a political occasion, too. Her existence is dependent on a radical imagination, the dreams of an eternity of dreamers who risked it all in search of a love that renames and remakes us all as free, emancipated souls. Through radical imagination a young artist from New York is transformed into a diva larger than life.
In the end, we began again, but not without a costume change, of course. Night Flower's reprise transformed the image of a flower blooming under stars into a meditation on all that transpired in between. Jomama Jones' universe was a perfectly packaged, self-contained gift she delivered from a world of undivided light. My hope reincarnated envisioning such clear skies, I was new again, ready to face the storm.
Ryan Diaz is a Filipino designer, writer, activist, and Celine Dion superfan. Boogies with Au Collective, teaches social justice-centered self-defense.
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