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Photograph: Julieta Cervantes

Theater review: Soho Rep’s Duat serves up three courses of diva fabulosity

Written by
Helen Shaw

Just how many shows did you actually want to see this evening? Does it seem like one isn't enough? Then put on your fanciest heels and strut over to the Connelly Theater, where you'll finally be sated by the three-part Duat, a luxury of theatrical overabundance. Writer-performer Daniel Alexander Jones and his ’80s soul superstar alter ego Jomama Jones are serving up a kind of gourmet tasting menu—a flight of Joneses, or Jones three ways.

Each section in the evening's triptych is in a genre by itself: first, improvised autobiographical narrative, then Afromystical ritual and finally a High Camp musical portrait of a school pageant. Each event feels as though it's not just in a separate show, but in a separate theater. Still, it's necessary that our journey be broken in just this way. The title Duat refers to the Ancient Egyptian underworld, where a soul had to pass a series of trials. Duat the show attempts the same action for Jones's own living soul (and perhaps for the audience's too), enacting the confession and avowals of selflessness that are necessary to pass into paradise.

In the most affecting section, we see Daniel Alexander Jones, aided by his younger self (Jacques Gerard Colimon) and 12-year-old “archivist” Tenzin Gund Morrow, telling the story of Jones's family and education. The stage (designed by Arnulfo Maldonado) is surrounded by card catalogues, and this chapter is radiant with young Jones's love of libraries, where women guided him to crucial works of Black history and art. The action of archive-keeping is here both holy and delightfully profane: Colimon is also recording a mix-tape, a love letter to an unnamed schoolmate. The younger Jones, to judge by the writing, was florid. “Skin is our first garment,” Colimon murmurs into his tape deck microphone. Jones blushes and hides behind a Diana Ross record.

There's a crash, and suddenly we're in place where goddesses and jackal-headed Anubis move in twilight. They speak: “What you thought was your heart was merely a husk!” This is the afterlife, where our hearts will be weighed against a feather, with dreadful consequences if it's found too heavy.

Before we understand quite what's happening, the intermission sweeps us into the third section, a schoolroom rehearsal hosted by Jomama Jones, Jones's other self, now resplendent in big hoop earrings and glitter-encrusted heels. (Radiate fans: If you have loved Jomama Jones as a soul diva, you will lose your mind for her as a kind and encouraging teacher.) This Jones guides her class through a pageant rehearsal, prodding each of them to blossom. And while here the piece slows a bit—director Will Davis and Jones are perhaps a little too determined that we give equal weight to all the self-actualizing maxims—there's recompense. After many pleasures, we finally move into the piece's most musical sequence (songs are by Jones, Samora Pinderhughes and Bobby Halvorson) and we are stunned by the talents before us. Jones changes into a golden chain-mail dress with black feathered sleeves, transforming herself into the fabulous winged goddess Maat. But this is the sort of goddess who assists rather than judges. In Duat, Daniel Alexander Jones is fully capable of measuring our hearts, but he doesn't. He lightens them instead.

Connelly Theater (Off Broadway). By Daniel Alexander Jones. Music by Samora Pinderhughes, Bobby Halvorson and Jomama Jones. Directed by Will Davis. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 20mins. One intermission. Through Nov 6. Click here for full ticket and venue information.

Follow Helen Shaw on Twitter: @Helen_E_Shaw 

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