We had the good fortune of connecting with Daniel Alexander Jones and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Daniel Alexander, how has your background shaped the person you are today?
I am from Springfield, Massachusetts. I always specify that I’m from Thompson Street, in the McKnight Neighborhood, in the 1970s and 1980s. There, at that time, was a multiracial, multi-ethnic, working-class community. A significant portion of the population were descended from Southern Black Americans who had come north during the Great Migration—my father’s family was among that number. Many of the cultural mores including concern for your neighbor, hospitality, storytelling, and the ability to consider things from both individual and collective perspectives simultaneously, suffused the air around me. Springfield also had a strong public school system, multiple welcoming library branches, and free museums. I was part of the generation born out of the Civil Rights Movement. I and my peers were expected to embody the ideals of beloved community that the Movement espoused. I grew up in a context where women seemed the most impactful authority figures and so I took for granted women’s leadership. I came of age rooted in a love for Black music and literature, and with a dazzling pantheon of Black superstars dotting the firmament of my imagination so I took for granted their centrality to culture nationally as well as their global impact. My interracial family gave me an illuminating perspective on the damning ways that racism and classism functioned both overtly and subtly. I was fortunate that I had a critical analysis at a very early age, one that developed in the context of being seen and loved as a whole human being by the people that mattered around me. And, perhaps most importantly of all, my imagination was not only protected it was celebrated. In fact, our community emphasized to young folks the importance of dreaming, of aspiring, of dedicating time and focus to cultivating those things you loved, and of sharing your inspiration with others. These were all lived values. I’ve stayed in touch with many of my friends from childhood. The vast majority have gone on to make lives and explore careers that lie off the beaten path, but they all share the core value of helping others as part of what gives purpose and meaning to their lives. Who I am today is directly connected to who we were there and then. In my lifetime I witnessed the swing into Reaganomics, the rise of the “me” generation, the increased emphasis on individual success, the exploitation of the planet and violence toward all forms of life upon it, and the virulence and destructive impact of white supremacy at all levels of the society. Yet, I have walked with the values that forged me, in community across the nation (and internationally) with others who live acording to a generative creed, actively cultivating experiences and connections that point a way toward reckoning, healing, and postive transformation. While the practices of beloved community have been derided, dismissed, and sidelined by the larger society, there remain many of us out here who embody those practices still. I count myself in that number.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
I am an energy worker. That sounds woo-woo to some ears, I’m sure. It is the truth of what I do. By trade I am an award-winning artist who works in theatre as a playwright, a performer, a director, and a deviser of projects. But in fact I move energy. I encourage its amplification and free flow, hoping to remove obstacles along the way. My means of doing this work, which is intimate & personal as well as public, has been live performance—theatre most often. And within that context, I’ve occupied many roles: writer, songwriter, performer, director, deviser, et. al. The commonality has been my engagement with energy, with the vital forces inside us, between & among us, and around us. Growing up, I paid close attention to what made people shine, what made them feel free to laugh, to dance, to spin a tale, to share their vulnerabilities. I saw that an intentional welcome, suffused with attention from the host to the guest, will more often than not open up a space for authentic presence and exchange. I saw that time can be dilated, stretched, or accelerated based on the ways we inhabit the moments we move through. I learned to “read” the signs that let me know a person was carrying a charged private experience, one that often was seeking outlet, but that was suppressed out of something as serious as shame, or as happenstance as there not being time to share and fully unpack it. I learned to read the signs by seeing my family (or, later, my amazing artistic mentors) pause and breathe and make space for the cat to come out of the bag, or the elephant in the room to come into clear focus. Sometimes they would ask a question, “is there something on your heart?” or offer a disruption, “you know, I’m so enjoying talking with you that I’d rather we kept this conversation going, than head out, what do you say?” Sometimes, they would just give a knowing look. But like pulling back a curtain to reveal a stormy sky, almost every time the person would divulge what they were carrying. That understanding, that folks are all walking around with complex inner weather patterns and that the ability to let that energy flow from a deep interior intimate place out into a collectively held space (and vice versa) is a deep human need. It is why stories are so important. It is why we turn again and again to songs that open portals between these dimensions. It is 100% why I determined early on, by hook or by crook, to use whatever medium was at hand in the service of creating contexts for that kind of flow. That meant not only in terms of the pieces I have created, but all aspects of the creative process from which the work springs. This includes the ways I develop collaborative relationships, and it includes approaches to
As a result, my career has definitely moved a long the proverbial road-less-traveled even as I have encountered, particularly of late, national recognition for my work. Looking at my art from the context of what I have described to you, it all seems of a piece, or rather, like stars in a constellation which is only revealed fully over time. That’s how I see it. Others in the field may not share that view. So, it not always been easy to keep the whole enterprise moving when decisions I make about what project is next, or what form that project should take (an album, and installation, a play, an essay…) lead me in directions that seem counterintuitive to those who adhere to the categories and boundaries of a more conventional path. I follow my intuition, and I follow the invitations that lie within a new project, hidden in plain sight, waiting to be activated through presence, attention, and play.
I am happily a part of traditions of making. I think of them as traditions of transgression and manifestation. The first is the Black American artistic avant-garde. The artists I was drawn to, and the mentors I was so fortunate to be raised-up by in the art world straddled Black popular cultural forms and wild experimentation. They lived multidimensional lives. They kept a dynamic balance between the cultivation of excellence in their craft and a willingness to let go of what you know and adventure into the new. And they held both the material and the metaphysical in mind-body-spirit as they worked. The second is the rich lineage of Queer performance artists. Many of them mined the autobiographical as a way of asking rigorous questions about identity, society (race, class, gender, sexuality), and power. And the understanding that you can contain a vast range of tastes and modes of expression, some of which may be contradictory, but all of which belongs in you and to you. It is from that lineage especially that I was emboldened to trust welcoming the ecstatic, quotidian actions, camp, intellectual inquiry, breathtaking beauty, regular gossip, and real-time conversation into the same room at the same time.
I’ve been working professionally for over 25 years. It is tremendously gratifying to see the field finally begin to recognize the methods & forms I was working in, and the questions I was asking. I am seeing a generation of artists emerge for whom assemblage and collage are understood as valid dramaturgical approaches; to whom identity is process, a location-in-motion and for whom fluidity is embraced; and with whom community exists as primary consideration at all levels of imagining and making. I never thought I was crazy for seeing the way I did, or for being drawn to create in the ways I did. I knew to make how I made and not to try to shoehorn my art into pre-existing boxes. But I did doubt whether the field would ever embrace the work on its own terms. So it is gratifying to see a new generation who are not subsumed by a desire for that embrace, and who, by raising up their art and sharing their processes, are broadening aesthetic vocabularies and dissolving boundaries. When these younger artists encounter my work now it makes total sense to them. And that is a gratifying feeling.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
One of my artistic fairy godmothers (who died when I was little) is Josephine Baker. She famously sang the song, “J’ai deux amours”—I have two loves, my country and Paris. I have spent the last decade negotiating a long-term relationship with New York City where my work has been produced and where I am a professor and falling into full-on soul love with Los Angeles, where I have created my work and where I feel the most integrated out of any of the places I’ve ever been. I’ve spent the last two years living full time in LA and I love knowing that if I lived out the rest of my days here I would never even come close to unlocking its treasures—isn’t that a sign of true love?
First off, Griffith Park. It is medicine to me. I often start off on one of the main trails and then veer off and get lost. I love getting there early early and watching the light fill the park, hearing the birds and scurrying creatures. It’s not currently allowable, but I used to also do moonlight hikes and those are among the most magical experiences I have had.
Zuma Beach. I love Venice and Santa Monica beaches, but if you have the time, trekking up to Zuma Beach is where its at. The waves are stunning, the shore is elegant, and the vibe is sweet. I was first brought to Zuma by two friends in 1996 on one of my first significant trips to LA and I still recall the feeling of my heart opening.
LA has the most amazing food. I would definitely go to a farmers’ market with my visiting friend and eat all the things. When we are able to go freely to restaurants there is an endless list of deliciousness. But I might stop by Punchbowl in Los Feliz for a Greek Coffee smoothie and Tacos tu Madre around the corner for a fried avocado taco (yes, it’s all that) before dipping into:
Skylight Books on Vermont. I love this bookstore (it’s actually now two storefronts, one the main bookstore, the other for art and music books.) The staff love the books in their store, and they often guide me to new titles I would otherwise miss.
The L.A. Public Library System is off the hook.
The museums. There are so many amazing museums and galleries with rotating exhibitions. I try to get to LACMA, the Hammer, and the California African American Museum as often as I can.
Finally, if we were able, I would take two days and drive out to my favorite place thus far in the USA – Joshua Tree.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
I want to shoutout my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Zehline A. Davis. I’ve had amazing teachers in my lifetime. She remains the best of the best. Her commitment to justice and equality and her unwavering belief in her students’ capacity to excel ignited in me and my peers a love of learning that radiates to this day. I have been in touch with her and she recently ran for school board in her town in her eighties! There’s no stopping Mrs. Davis.
Joan Marcus/The Public Theater Julieta Cervantes/Soho Rep