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stage review

In ‘Black Light,’ asking us to think — and feel

Jomama Jones is joined by her backup singers and band in American Repertory Theater’s production of “Black Light” at Oberon.Yazi Ferrufino

CAMBRIDGE — “Can you imagine being given permission to feel all your feelings?’’ Jomama Jones asks about two-thirds of the way through “Black Light.’’

Well, yes, actually. By then, that permission has been granted by “Black Light’’ itself, to both performer and audience.

A 90-minute cabaret-style show running at the Oberon club through Sunday, “Black Light’’ is the creation of playwright-performer Daniel Alexander Jones. So is Jomama Jones, his alter ego, and she’s a singular figure whose star quality is wrapped within an embracing persona.

For a decidedly glamorous diva (I counted six costume changes, from evening gowns to jumpsuits), Jomama Jones is strikingly snark-free. As she blends a somewhat meandering life story with life lessons, musical performance, and politically pointed remarks (“It’s something when we’re nostalgic for Margaret Thatcher,’’ she remarks dryly at one point), her demeanor alternates from upbeat to wistful to forceful. But it’s marked throughout by a certain companionability and compassion. The general vibe is of a performer speaking to, not down to.

Ranging about the Oberon floor and at one point cutting loose in song while standing on a table, Jomama delivers dynamic performances of original songs, from up-tempo R&B to ballads, that were composed by Jones and a quartet of collaborators. Solid support comes from backup vocalists Clarissa Ligon and Trevor Bachman, whom she calls “my Vibrations,’’ and from a four-piece band.


In her reminiscences of childhood, Jomama’s forbiddingly strict and taciturn aunt looms large. The revelation of the aunt’s personal history hints at the reason for that strictness and taciturnity, and is perhaps the most wrenching moment of “Black Light.’’

On a lighter note, Jomama’s tales of an adolescent rivalry with a friend are framed by the enduring figure of Prince, whose self-titled 1979 album Jomama consumed so avidly that she knew exactly how many of his chest hairs were visible on the cover shot. “Prince was the gravitational center of our universe in 1979,’’ she says. That paves the way for the use of the actual universe as a metaphor for one of the evening’s most resonant and timely questions: Are nations like supernovas? Does something have to die for something new to come into being?


The audience is intermittently enlisted as a kind of collaborator in “Black Light.’’ Too often, when a performer interacts with an audience, it’s a cringe-fest: at best awkward, at worst humiliating for the poor spectator dragooned into serving as a prop. But Jomama’s back-and-forth with spectators builds a sense of collegiality, even intimacy, generating a feel-good vibe as she chats with spectators in a confiding manner, providing a model for how to be playful with an audience without embarrassing them.

Which is not to say that the audience is left unchallenged. Pointedly, she reminds us of the African-American tradition of bearing witness, of “taking responsibility for what you see,’’ and asks: “Am I a living witness, or have I become a passive observer?’’

Jomama raises hard issues of racial injustice — making an allusion to “black rage’’ and, in a series of incantatory utterances that speak of weariness and defiance, posing the stark question “How many more must we lose?’’

With lyrics that underscore how “concepts of identity consume us like a cruel disease . . . a generation maimed and sidelined,’’ she turns a fierce spotlight on the discriminatory treatment some must still endure because of their gender identity or sexual orientation. It’s part of the broader, if unspoken, message that runs through “Black Light’’: Don’t hold back when it comes to what and whom you love.



Created by Daniel Alexander Jones. Presented by American Repertory Theater at Oberon, Cambridge, through Sept. 29. Tickets start at $25, 617-547-8300, www.americanrepertorytheater.org

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter@GlobeAucoin.