Excerpts from "Theatrical Jazz"
Dramaturg Omi Jones recently published a landmark textbook about the theatrical jazz aesthetic, an aesthetic that will be employed in Marin Theatre Company's production of Gem of the Ocean. Here are some excerpts selected by Jones to give audiences a taste.
"Theatrical jazz is a distinctive way to make work and life; indeed, theatrical jazz acknowledges the necessary seamlessness of the two. While this aesthetic leans heavily on elements of jazz including ensemble and individual virtuosity, improvisation, polyrhythms, “the bridge,” and “the break,” it also references the modern dance idioms, the blues sensibilities, the performance art antecedents, and the ancestral calling that position theatrical jazz as a distinctive performance genre. The texts and productions made from this artistic sensibility are diverse, yet some features reoccur through the range of works. Most often, theatrical jazz is nonlinear and transtemporal. It offers a complex idea of Blackness that challenges monolithic definitions and predictable associations. The narratives most often explore power and identity, sex and desire, and are frequently subjective explorations of the writer’s life. Love, joy, and community are commonly the exacting roads to transformation. In production, the bodies often share nonmimetic movements that are layered onto the verbal text as a counterpoint providing physical and visual stories of their own. Music references, especially blues and jazz, regularly appear in the work as sound, ideas, structure, or characters. In theatrical jazz, the audience is positioned as co-creators and witnesses who help shape the work and are reshaped by it."
"Theatrical jazz has artistic impulses akin to Western theatrical avant-garde traditions—a particular kind of resistance to existing sociopolitical structures, an interactive relationship with audience/witnesses, a reimagining of what theatre itself might be and do in the world."
"The expression of a Black avant-garde stands in sharp contrast to traditional Black U.S. theatre, though the two have similar aims. Theatrical resistance and insurgency can manifest in distinctive, and seemingly contradictory, ways. Some traditionally structured Black Theatre grows out of an impulse to prove its worth by adopting established standards of dramatic excellence. In this way, the well-made play, the proscenium, and readily identifiable characters and locations become acts of resistance in a world that does not allow full participation of Black artists in mainstream theatrical work. The Black avant-garde, instead, dismantles and re-envisions the very notion of what theatre might be. In this way, Black Theatre benefits from both August Wilson and Sekou Sundiata, from Lorraine Hansberry and Robbie McCauley."
"Traditional Black Theatre has found a way to encourage certain types of social change and transcendence through familiar characters, locations, and situations. The Black avant-garde pulls on that sense of the familiar, but finds new structures for it as it dares to give audience/witnesses the familiar, like a gospel choir with a fan-waving congregation, and an unexpected Blackness to grapple with, a new way to social and spiritual transcendence."
"In theatrical jazz, the blue note is the presence of Black references or experiences that are just enough off-center to make one’s head cock to the side—curious, fascinated."
"The jazz aesthetic in theatre is the spatial, aural, linguistic embodiment of queer, the expression of a self-naming that is consciously and insurgently liminal, unfixed. In queerness, nonnormative eros is the norm—morphing, shape-shifting, being fully present inside of one’s sexual—and political—desires."
"Queerness is knowing/living the permeability of reality markers, it is embracing the varieties of eros regardless of what the specific practice might be—hetero, homo, or whatever. Queer is more about naming sites of possibility than naming a particular possibility. Queer foregrounds sexuality, the necessity of pleasure, and places it in the middle of the conversation, permits play and exploration to be the goal. Queer as permeable and multideterminant suggests an experiential relationship with liminality which need not be conceptualized solely as “not this and not that” but, more fruitfully, “this and that.” Like queerness, liminality is the space of possibility in which people are not bound to the social structures, but are given freedom to conceive, to imagine, to invent, to make. Liminality is the space of improvisation—invention within a prescribed structure, the making of something that did not exist before."
"In theatrical jazz, the belief in and pursuit of love and joy become the ultimate Black blue notes, the unexpected drive that keeps Blackness outside of well-worn mainstream definitions and expectations. As such, the drive toward joy is an act of resistance—consciously or unconsciously—a declaration of Blackness that eludes the stranglehold of socially established defining hands."