Ideas grow as freely as wildflowers in the Soho Rep world premiere of Daniel Alexander Jones' Duat, now playing at the Connelly Theater. Jones wowed audiences at Soho Rep with his 2011 show, Radiate, which was essentially a cabaret performance by his drag persona, 1980s soul singer Jomama Jones. Jomama is back with tuneful original songs co-written with Samora Pinderhughes and Bobby Halvorson, but this new show also gives time to the man who invented her. Vaulting across vast stretches of Jones' extraordinary imagination, Duat is a show unlike any other playing in New York.
The evening is divided into two distinct halves: The first part features Jones (sporting a grey-brown suit and cool, asymmetrical hair) speaking directly to us. He shares anecdotes about his family, attending an integrated public school, and the war between his grandmother and little brother, where the only thing that brought them together was a morbid fascination with news reports about Jeffrey Dahmer. He is joined onstage by Jacques Gerard Coliman, who plays a teenage version of Jones with convincing authenticity. Meanwhile, Tenzin Gund Morrow plays Jones as a young child, regularly ordering the adult to "confess," like an adorable little nun. Jones' gentle narration forces you to lean in and really pay attention. His performance feels like a secret shared with just us.
Set designer Arnulfo Maldonado accentuates the intimacy of the piece by packing the hallways to the theater with tall file cabinets and card catalogues, conjuring an overstuffed library. Maldonado artfully exploits the eccentricities of the Connelly Theater (especially the side doors in the proscenium) to suggest Jones' cozy childhood home. Lighting designer Solomon Weisbard uses incandescent practicals to further create a warm, domestic vibe. Everything feels safe and inviting.
Jomama Jones takes over for the second half (he uses the intermission to get into drag). Since we last met, she seems to have taken a job as a school teacher. Along with her partner, librarian Miss Robinson (Stacey Karen Robinson), she's going to direct a school pageant celebrating, among other things, George Washington Carver and his contributions to horticulture. Playing the student cast members, Coliman and Morrow are joined by Kaneza Schaal (who touchingly portrays a burgeoning young writer) and Toussaint Jeanlouis, who lovingly interprets the original song, "Man Who Talks to Flowers." Looking very much like latter-day Von Trapp children, they wear colorful paisley suits with blue, pink, and yellow accents (whimsical costumes by Oana Botez). Miss Jones and Miss Robinson teach the children well, guiding them on their paths of self-discovery in this pageant rehearsal that is as endearing as it is unfocused.
Duat brims with ideas, not all of them fully developed. Under the laissez-faire direction of Will Davis (who was recently named the new artistic director of Chicago's American Theater Company), the piece jumps between Jones' personal narrative to sections about Egyptology (the title refers to the ancient Egyptian realm of the dead) and pop divas. Jones touches upon ambivalence around school integration, the cosmic significance of flowering plants, and the danger to black bodies in a country shaped by white supremacy. Unfortunately, none of these very important subjects is given enough time to really sink in and a lack of narrative clarity regularly leaves us feeling lost in Jones' expansive spiritual and intellectual kingdom.
Still, the enchantment of discovering a world so big and unexplained is a feeling one rarely encounters outside of childhood. Much like Mister Rogers, Jones makes us feel secure and welcome in this exploration, even when we invariably aren't able to follow him. It's an experience that is all too rare in the theater and one that makes me look forward to Jones' next performance. Until then, can someone at PBS please get Jomama Jones a children's television show?