Near the end of her "comeback" show at the Pillsbury House Theatre, Jomama Jones (show co-creator Daniel Alexander Jones) asks each audience member to look into the eyes of a stranger and make a wish for them. It could come off as a bit of hackneyed motivational-speaker claptrap, but the vibe that Jones and his soulful band have built over the proceeding 90 minutes pushes any of that aside.
It's a special moment, one that helps to make Radiate a unique theatrical event. There's plenty of music sprinkled throughout, and the funky band is tight. More than that, there is Jomama's story, which takes her from the top of the charts in the 1980s to self-exile when she found that the mood in America was getting too harsh and cold for her. The reports she has heard indicate things haven't gotten any better, so Jomama has made a return to see what really is up.
Jones conceived of Jomama Jones back in the 1990s while living and working in the Twin Cities. He brings a fully fledged creation, complete with a hot band and a powerful message about staying human in tough times.
Some back-story: Jomama was a hit songstress during the early 1980s, crafting a string of classic soulful R&B tunes, appearing on the likes of Solid Gold and Soul Train, and even acting in a cult science-fiction film, Sister Soul and the Colonizers from Mars (I so wish I could watch that on Netflix). Her growing dissatisfaction with Reagan-era America didn't sit well with her record company, who demanded too many changes from her new super-aware, fierce persona. She decided to escape the country for Switzerland, where she has lived since (on the side of a mountain, with goats, we learn).
The show, then, is presented as part of not just a comeback tour but a de Tocqueville-like look at America today. From her perch in the Swiss Alps, Jomama had heard that Americans had gotten hard and closed. So she wanted to find out for herself — and see if she could open some minds and hearts on her own.
The evening features a mix of songs (written with Bobby Halvorson, who also plays guitar in the band), stories from Jomama's life, a bit of audience interaction, and words of wisdom from our star.
This isn't a "wink wink, nudge nudge" kind of drag act. Jones's character is full of power and dignity (and looks really good in the dresses and heels crafted by Oana Botez). Sure, there is plenty of humor in the role, but it seems to emerge naturally from the character. When she talks of traveling to the CERN Large Hadron Collider to get them to kindly turn it off (it's keeping her goats up at night, which is keeping her up at night), it feels well within her character, as does her suggestion that if you want to know about the moments after the Big Bang, just close your eyes and listen.
There is a bit of play within every evening's show, depending on who is in the audience. As it happened, singer Aimee Bryant was there for opening night, and she lent her voice to one of the closing numbers and offered a bit of wisdom about "accepting vertically and spreading horizontally," an idea Jones latched on to for the rest of the evening.
Musically, the songs fit well into the soul and funk mode, concentrating mostly on spreading positive vibes. This isn't a traditional musical, or even something like Hedwig and the Angry Inch, where the songs serve to tell the story. Instead, they merge with the narrative to underscore Jomama's basic message: Open your heart, love one another, and be positive to make changes. It's hard to argue with that.