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Theatre in Review: Jomama Jones: Radiate (Soho Rep)

Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the American comeback of Jomama Jones.

Who is Jomama Jones, you say? You don't remember such '80s hits as "Ghetto (In My Mind)" or "Afromatic"? You never caught her strutting on Soul Train and Solid Gold? You've never her cinematic cult classic Sister Soul and the Colonizers From Mars?

Of course you haven't because Jomama Jones is the creation of the performance artist Daniel Alexander Jones. A synthesis of late-'70s soul sisters like Lola Falana, Melba Moore, and Freda Payne, she's the most glittering diva ever to step off the cover of Jet magazine and right into the hearts of her many fans. She looks and sounds more than a little like Lena Horne in her late Broadway phase, and, during one of her more imperious moods, you may be tempted to call her Miss Ross. "Aren't you luscious," she coos at the audience, but really, in that department, the regal, sequin-sheathed Jomama has no peer.

Jomama has been living in self-imposed European exile, thanks to her disillusionment with American politics. ("Black power got turned off. Somebody didn't pay the bill.") She's spent the intervening years in Switzerland: "Just me in my villa with my goats," she says, adding that the poor things have been unnecessarily stressed out by living next to the Hadron Collider. Sensing that the time is right, she has returned to the US, courtesy of "my private pilot, Esteban." It's at moments like these that you wish Jomama's creator would go even further, exploring the full dimensions of her dizzily self-adoring manner.

But what really interests Daniel Alexander Jones is the kind of persona that Jomama and her sisters had to adopt in order to maintain a precarious foothold in a society that still wasn't comfortable with them. He captures with unfailing fidelity Jomama's almost eerie composure and her sexily insinuating manner, which turns every remark into a double entendre. Picking out three different audience members, she uses them to divide all of male humanity into three categories: workhorses, race horses, and show ponies - categories I'm sure you don't need me to explain. (Amusingly, at the performance I attended, Joseph Melillo, executive producer of Brooklyn Academy of Music, was categorized as a show pony.) She's also capable of playing the great lady and the philosophe, regretting American materialism and expressing her own personal philosophy, which comes down to the idea that if everyone in the audience embraced the person next to him or her, we'd have world peace right now; it's enough to make you remember when Richard Nixon named Pearl Bailey America's Ambassador of Love to the World.

Radiate packs plenty of crowd-pleasing elements, not the least of which are some tasty pastiches of '70s-era easy-listening soul, delivered by Jones in his warm baritone and backed by a pair of divas-in-training known as Sweet Peaches. Numbers like "Endless Summer" and "Soul Uprising" will have you wondering if you didn't hear them on WBLS thirty ears ago. The numbers were written by Jones in collaboration with Bobby Halvorson (along with Sharon Bridgforth, Grisha Coleman, and Amy Hunt), the show's musical director, who presides over the liveliest soul band to be found south of Houston Street.

For all its amusement value, it seems clear that, in certain respects, Jomama Jones remains a work in progress. Her creator seems unsure whether he wants to spoof her or be her. There's no real through-line -- we're simply watching a glorified nightclub act -- and, at a certain point, the fun wears thin. Other unfortunate aspects: an overemphasis on audience participation (she all but demands that we get up and dance during one number, a command that found few takers), the irritating presence of < b>Jing Xu, a young Asian woman who introduces Jomama and hangs around, smiling frenziedly in an failed attempt at spreading cheer, and a sequence in which Jomama and the Peaches read from a list of audience wishes, gathered before the show. At my performance, someone wished to become the meanest, ugliest person in the world, a request that left the performers nonplussed, to say the least. And the show would probably benefit from fewer -- or a few more distinguished -- musical numbers; the song list suffers from a certain sameness.

Anyway, as staged by Kym Moore, Radiate benefits from an ultra-smooth presentation. Arnulfo Maldonato's all-white set -- with walls covered in white fringe -- is infused with lush color by the lighting of Lucrecia Briceno and David Bengali. Jomama's many glamorous costume changes are courtesy of Oana Botez-Ban and Ron Cesario. (The rest of the cast's outfits, including some rather ungainly and unflattering coats for the band, are by Botez-Ban.) Nick Kourtides' sound design is a model of balance and restraint.

"Were you scared by that song?" Jomama asks at one point. Sorry Jomama, there's nothing scary about you -- and maybe there should be. Still, we haven't heard the last of her, I'm sure -- and Switzerland's loss is probably our gain.--David Barbour

(7 January 2011)

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