Sometimes, a show just opens up your heart. Now, this could easily sound like hyperbole, the kind of thing reviewers say when they want to see their name on a poster. But it’s also how Duat made me feel – that unclenching of a type of hardened, expectant cynicism that can become a default, even before the lights go down.
It’s not as if there isn’t plenty of potential here for that raised eyebrow, in the way writer and performer Daniel Alexander Jones so openly appeals to mysticism, gods and broken hearts. In Egyptian mythology, ‘duat’ is the realm of the dead. Here – at least in the first half – it’s a library shrouded in the memories of our 40-something narrator (Jones), as he recounts his childhood. It’s a place where, as a queer, mixed-race kid, he could learn of love and heritage…
… and as I write this, in a café in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Jeff Buckley’s cover of ‘Hallelujah’ has just started playing. Serendipity. Something of the mood of that wistful, rich, sad song captures the sensation of watching Jones’s narrator wordlessly, regretfully, longingly sharing stage space with his teenage (Jacques Gerard Colimon) and child (Tenzin Gund-Morrow) selves.
Black singers and divas are the gods here – distant, deified, close and needed. Jones imbues everything with a sense of the numinous, from lovingly written passages about first loves, struggles at school with slyly racist teachers to the guilt of not doing more, of not being more. Anubis, Egyptian god of the underworld, could be sitting on the same couch as the narrator’s family, who come together to watch news reports about serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer.
This is an 80s childhood, soundtracked by Prince – on a record player on a long table on the stage, with vinyls handed between Jones, Colimon and Gund-Morrow like gifts. Designer Arnulfo Maldonado’s elegantly simple set places filing cabinets like sentries on either side of the Connelly Theater’s proscenium stage. Jones’s narrator uses card catalogues and a projector to talk about growing up, of family members lynched and a blind grandmother with a bell.
Here, the library is the world, and the universe; here it leads to gently funny recollections of the personal and familial, anchored to a fierce, proud awareness of lineage and history. Jones’s first-person monologues have the rolling rhythm of Toni Morrison’s prose. As Gerard Colimon whispers fantasies into a microphone, staring into space, what he says is pretentious, but this show is wise and kind.
There’s something beautifully unapologetic about where Duat goes, conceptually and staging-wise. Its horizons keep broadening, into the cosmic, the metaphysical, and you go with it. The first half ends with Stacey Karen Robinson as an elemental figure – as if speaking for the universe – berating us while accompanied by Anubis, commanding us to see the hope of renewal, if we would only hold our nerve through the chaos.
This is a show that sprawls all over the place, but does so in a way that embraces the poetry and possibility of failure. Actually, it doesn’t care – and neither do you. The profound teeters on the edge of excess throughout, grounded in wit, heart and shards of insight wrapped in regret. It’s strange and lovely.
It’s also not afraid to spin into something else entirely after the interval, picking up threads from the first half to become a classroom preparing for a pageant. This is where Jones’s long-standing alter ego, the fabulous Jomama Jones, makes her appearance. This is also where the new music by Jones, Samora Pinderhughes and Bobby Halvorson really sings.
Jomama – a high-heeled, Afro-haired goddess channelling the 70s like the most gorgeous spirit of an age – is both mother figure and cultural guardian to a class of children of colour, figuring themselves out as they decide their acts for the pageant. Duat could easily get stuck in a sentimental rut here, with its themes of growth and flowering. But its songs sweep across the terrain of disco and urban music, weaving nineteenth-century black scientist George Washington Carver into their lyrics. It earns its beats.
A trolley of books by black authors is ever-present on stage – connecting everything back (in Jones’s words) to before the before. As Jones and Stacey Karen Robinson, the school’s mysterious librarian in this act, stand and watch their wards express themselves, like archivists of lives, there’s a richness here – of skin tone, of sexuality and of hope – that’s the perfect rebuke to the current political climate. It’s a countering in song and performance of the toxic homogenisation and policing of bodies.
Afterwards, the word that kept spinning in my head as I wandered to the subway – somehow more aware of people’s laughter alongside New York’s distinctive wail of sirens – was ‘joyous’. It’s in Jones’s writing. It fills the smart performances. It rings out in 12-year-old Gund-Morrow’s gorgeous singing. Duat is joyous. Not naïvely so – the opposite, in fact. It’s a celebration of black lives, of potential, while fully aware of what continues to be lost.
Director Will Davis’ staging, with its cascade of flowers at one point, is optimism made visually lyrical, taking a braver route than cynicism – which, after all, can never be let down or disappointed. Duat is fierce, funny and mournful; a sung, sometimes whispered, ode to race, queerness and difference. It profoundly touched me.