Like anyone else, an artist is the sum of his experiences.
"I went to a Catholic school that was primarily white," recalls Thomas W. Jones II, a protean black director, writer and performer originally from New York, now living in Atlanta, and currently in Washington to direct Athol Fugard's "Master Harold . . . and the boys," which opens tonight at Studio Theatre. "I remember in the first grade getting beat up every day. For like a week. You know, just showing up and kids beating the living crap out of me and hearing the N-word over and over."
Later he attended another predominantly white, very exclusive private school in Manhattan. Here he had his first close encounters with the well-intentioned rich, who, by the late 1960s, were beginning to open their butlered doors to minorities.
Meaning that instead of getting beaten up, Jones was now being patronized.
"I was invited over once by the headmaster's son," he says. "I liked the kid well enough, he wasn't a bad guy, but we never did hang out together, so it was strange. . . . I'm like, why am I here? What are we doing? Obviously he was told to have an experience with a black kid."
Jones, 43, says that by age 13 he was pretty radical on the subject of race. True, part of the reason was the heady nature of the era--the end of the '60s, the beginning of the '70s, when just about every issue fired passions. But his experience had left genuine disgust and anger inside him.
That, however, was then. This is now. The Jones Now, call it. A present in which racism still happens but no longer consumes him, he says. In which ice cold pragmatism allows him to get heated up about other, "more interesting" things.
You could make a good case that Jones's experience with racism has shaped not only his worldview but his art as well. But you'd make a more relevant one to say that the Jones Now is in no small part a gift bequeathed to him by his late father. The evidence comes tumbling out as he talks about his father, his family, his growing up, his frequent work at Studio Theatre, and the ways all these things relate to "Master Harold," a play that is suffused with racism and has as its core a severely disfigured father-son relationship.
Race and Roots
Like many of the earlier dramas that made Fugard's name, "Master Harold" looks at the human toll exacted by the South African apartheid system, in which the playwright grew up. But this 1982 work addresses racism as a kind of escape mechanism, not a motivating force. That latter role is given to the powerfully contradictory feelings that the protagonist--a precocious, priggish, 17-year-old white boy--has for his alcoholic, racist father. News of his dad's impending return from the hospital eventually causes the boy, overwhelmed by his unresolved feelings, to turn viciously on the middle-aged black servant who's been more of a father to him than his real one ever was.
The play is autobiographical and as a result sometimes feels like a self-flagellating plea for forgiveness. But Fugard also manages to put his finger on the simple yet tangled psychology that passes racism down through generations. "The only option Hally [the boy] has at some point is to grab onto what his father has always held onto," says Jones, who sees Hally's attack on the servant as his desperate attempt to assert control over his increasingly uncontrollable world.
It wasn't Jones's idea to do "Master Harold." Studio artistic director Joy Zinoman says the play is among her favorites. Also, Studio had yet to mount a Fugard play. And with the theater's ongoing Millennium Project-- producing plays that have something to say about each decade of the 20th century ("Master Harold" is set in the 1950s), "the time seemed right," she says.
As for the Jones connection, "Tom first came here seven years ago with a one-man show," Zinoman says. "We hit it off, and because of chance and circumstances, we've started a long relationship with him."
A total of seven Jones productions--in some combination written, directed or performed by him--have been staged at Studio, accounting for the majority of the theater's African American-themed offerings. As a result, the cry of "Unfair!" has sometimes swirled through the Washington theater community, where there is no black-owned and -operated theater. (The refurbished Lincoln Theatre hopes to change things.) The complaint: Why should the comparatively few jobs in black shows go to out-of-towners like Jones?
"Bull[bleep]," says Zinoman. "Gossip is endemic in the theater, and there are always going to be people who want a role that someone else got. But I believe that Tom's roots in the Washington community are deep. He's bonded with huge numbers of actors in this city. So it doesn't ring true to me as a general point."
Jones has no patience for the complaint. "I've never felt like I'm taking someone else's job, and if I did, so what?" he says. "At some point there've been people who've taken jobs I thought I should get. That's just the world."
You can question his application of them, but there's no denying Jones's talents. "There's a real muscularity to all of Tom's work," says Howard Shalwitz, artistic director of Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, where Jones has also directed. "One is struck by the vigor of the attack that the actors have when he directs. They come on and grab the stage with an incredible intensity, which is exactly what he does as an actor himself."
He's a consummate showman--who can sometimes, depending on your tastes, be either intensely energetic or plain hammy. In Studio's production of "Waiting for Godot" last season, Jones, who played Vladimir, improvised lines more frequently than director Zinoman wanted. "That was a struggle," she says. "I was basically saying, 'No, no, no, you can't do that.' " But when he's on target, there are few more captivating performers or directors on a Washington stage, as his multiple Helen Hayes Award nominations can attest.
Fathers and Sons
Jones first encountered Fugard's work in the late 1970s and was immediately impressed. "It had a real passion that wasn't even in black American theater at the time," he says. By the mid-1980s it seemed you could catch a Fugard play on just about any professional stage around the country, including Jones's in Atlanta. "Master Harold," however, was among the few Jones never produced.
A nationally recognized man of the theater, Jones--who is single and has a 3-year-old daughter in Atlanta--hardly has to accept every job offered to him. But the prospect of looking back at "Master Harold" appealed to him, especially now that apartheid has been dismantled. "What does that kind of play say now?" Jones wondered when offered the show. "Will it have the same power?" On rereading the script, he was pleasantly surprised to conclude that it did.
But where does "Master Harold" connect with Jones personally? The question produces a rare moment when his words don't simply flow. "I, ah," he begins after a pause, "I buried my father when I was 20. I'd gone to college to become a lawyer. My father wanted me to be a lawyer. After 2 1/2 years I realized I didn't want to be a lawyer."
He changed his major to theater but didn't tell his father. Though he describes their relationship as good, "I still knew that that summer I was going to have to come home and say, 'Uh, uh . . .' "--he starts mumbling now, a mock regression to his youth--" 'uh, I can't be a lawyer!' "
Then he learned his father was ravaged with cancer and might not live until summer. "So coming home early and trying to deal with someone I thought was going to die immediately, and what it was to gather that whole relationship and bring it all in perspective, and deal with the great sense of expectation that was laid on . . ."
The thought trails off. Jones switches to a moment in the play, when Hally is on the phone first with his mother, exhorting her to keep his father from coming home, and then finds himself talking suddenly to his father--and saying he can't wait to see him again.
"When he's on the phone talking to his father, who's in a hospital bed, and what that means," Jones says, "when I read that I thought, 'Yeah, I know that.' To try and be something for someone that in your heart you really are not."
Disappointing a loving father's hopes for your career isn't quite the same as struggling with intense feelings of love and loathing for a parent who casually inflicts pain on everyone around him. But Jones insists there is still a parallel, if only an elementary one. Jones never actually told his father about changing his life plans; one morning in the kitchen the older man, his weight then down from 160 to about 98, hobbled past his son and without looking at him said, "You know, whatever you want to be, it's okay."
"I hadn't said a word to him about it," Jones recalls. "But he knew. Very weird."
The Larger World
Jones was born and bred to what he calls "a solidly black middle-class life" in New York. His father had grown up in Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant and had been the first of the family to go to college--medical school, in fact. "He'd done well for himself," says Jones, "and he decided to move out of Bed-Stuy so that his kids could do better."
Life in a predominantly white neighborhood of Queens was uneventful until Jones hit age 6. Oh, sure, the white kids never invited him to join their stickball games, but he never asked why. Then came the Catholic school pummelings, followed by the private school patronizing.
His father's advice on handling racism was as comforting as a kick in the pants. "He was like, 'You know, you gotta figure it out! This is the world, and it's not like it's gonna get any better just for you!' " Nonetheless, the blunt counsel forced Jones to do what he seems to have been doing ever since, vis-a-vis life's vexations: Analyze what they mean in order to get a perspective on them so that he can move beyond them.
Having lived to a great extent in both black and white cultures, Jones felt he understood exactly where the two overlapped and where they were hopelessly different. His earliest perspective on those differences was radically confrontational.
While still in college in the 1970s Jones worked for the Nation of Islam, helping to manage PR for, among others, Muhammad Ali and Louis Farrakhan. This was, says Jones, his black nationalist phase, which instilled in him an appreciation for the development of self-esteem and self-reliance within the African American community.
"The most important thing I learned from working with the Nation of Islam was the value of building our own institutions," Jones says. "There was lots of talk about the need for black-owned restaurants and shops, and I thought, well, why not theater?"
After graduating from Amherst College in 1978, Jones became one of the founders of Jomandi Productions in Atlanta, where his family had moved some years earlier. For most of Jomandi's first 10 seasons the shows were "extraordinarily" political and race-conscious, Jones says. (A number of those shows were, not coincidentally, early plays by Fugard.) But by the late '80s, when Jones began writing in earnest, he was starting to wrestle with another existential question:
"I felt like I had dealt with all the [race] demons and gotten some perspective on them. And pride and self-esteem and all that was very important, but at some point you had to start asking, 'Okay, how are we going to participate in the larger world?' "
The first show Jones wrote, "The Wizard of Hip," featured the character Afro Jo--played by Jones--a young black Everyman who comes of age in a tale laced with poetry and rap riffs. The sequel, "Hip 2: Birth of the Boom," caught up with Jo in later years as he struggled--often humorously, sometimes poignantly--to define and understand what it means to be an African American man in a world where race and racism are just two of many challenges in life.
He also wrote and directed "Bessie's Blues," a musical about the life and career of blues singer Bessie Smith. Most recently he wrote "Slam," a musical about a poetry competition in a nightclub.
All those shows began at Jomandi and eventually played at Studio; some traveled to New York, earning Jones critical praises. In show business jargon, he is known as a crossover artist. When you bring this up, he flashes that grin again and says that "Jomandi" is an acronym made up of names of family members. But maybe something mysterious and fateful was at work: He says he later discovered that it is also a word in an ancient Senegalese dialect, translating roughly as "people gathered together in celebration."
'This Is the World'
"Figure it out! This is the world, and it's not like it's gonna get any better just for you!"
Jones thinks he's finally figured it out enough to get along in the world. "I don't want to be overwhelmed by racism," he says. "It is what it is, and we will always confront it when necessary."
Further, he says, "I don't have to buy into the notion that all white people are racist. A lot of different people have helped me in my work, and they have not all looked like me. And so now what am I going to be as a human being in response, and what is my work going to say? What do I want to accomplish?"
Failure to make sense of the world is precisely what Jones sees as the source of drama in "Master Harold . . . and the boys." The play, he says, is at heart about the difficulty a boy has in "constructing a different world or inventing a world outside of the one he's inherited." To succeed he must face down demons, but he is far too young for that. "And whether you're dealing with racism or classism, or a father wanting you to go into the family business--"
Or a law career?
"Whatever it is," he continues, smiling, laughing, "each generation has to deal with figuring out for itself how to live in the world."
Either you do the hard work to find an answer, or, like Hally, you take an easy out. The choice, Jones says, as his father did before him, is yours, and what's at stake is simply whether you or somebody else rides herd over your present.