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Rhodessa Jones, 2020 Pew Fellow. Photo by Emily Fitzgerald.

Pew Fellow of the Week: An Interview with Theater Artist Rhodessa Jones

Our “Pew Fellow of the Week” series focuses on the artistic lives of our Pew Fellows: their aspirations, influences, and creative challenges.  

Based in San Francisco, theater performer, director, teacher, and writer Rhodessa Jones is a Fellow-in-Residence who will begin her one-year residency in Philadelphia next year. Jones (2020) spoke to us about being drawn to art early in life in a family of Black migrant workers, why she makes work for and with other women, and what she hopes to accomplish during her time in Philadelphia. This interview was transcribed from an audio recording and edited for length and clarity. 

Since 1979, she has been the co-artistic director of San Francisco performing arts organization Cultural Odyssey. In 1989, she founded The Medea Project, for which she serves as artistic director, developing performance pieces with incarcerated women and women who are HIV-positive. Her solo work includes the Bessie Award-winning Big Butt Girls, Hard Headed Women, which has toured globally. 


When did you know you were an artist? 

I've always known I was an artist, for whatever the definition of artist meant. What I mean is that all around me, art was constantly being made. As an African American, it was a way to stay alive. My grandmother, my father, my brothers, my mother—amongst them, there was always singing and dancing and telling stories, even telling lies. Anything to get you through the night. 

We were migrant workers in America. We would migrate from Florida, where we had a house, to upstate New York, where we eventually bought a farm and lived on a farm. As migrant workers in America, I always loved the romantic idea of living on the outside of the culture. 

We were always on the edge of America: picking fruit, picking vegetables, making America's food plates as the way we worked. Part of just being an artist was, on a Saturday night, watching the folks in the camp. My father was the crew leader. There was a camp of people who traveled with us. 

We would have to set up camp in many different places, and there'd always be a jukebox. Sometimes there'd even be a nice wooden floor. But there were always stories to tell, and there were always nefarious characters around. I met a lot of Black vaudevillians growing up on the labor camp because the Chitlin’ Circuit had died. And with the death of the Chitlin’ Circuit, a lot of people had no other way to make a living but to go back to the land, back to gathering and harvesting the food that we eat in this country.  

So I've always been an artist. And I guess I've always identified as an artist.   

What is your daily art-making routine? 

My daily art-making routine involves meditation, of course. Sitting with myself, being still, absorbing the energy, the air around me. I live alone, so I spend a lot of time these days examining my position in the world.  

I grow beautiful flowers. I make sure that I have a lovely bouquet about, as part of my meditative presentation. I listen to music that speaks to growth. “10 Questions for the Dalai Lama” [by Peter Kater] is one of my favorite pieces of music that I listen to in the mornings. I do listen to jazz as well. I listen to Carmen McRae singing Thelonious Monk, which is one of my favorite pieces of music right now. 

I try to walk at least two or three times a week. And simply practicing stillness is a part of my daily art-making routine—writing down my responses to the world around me is a way to begin with a new work. During the pandemic it has been essential that I figured out how to know when to be still and when to move. 

What images or things keep you company in the space where you work? 

Lots of photographs of my family: my daughter, my granddaughter, my great-grandson, my mother and my father. My brothers’ and sisters’ paintings. Posters. Sculpture. I travel in Africa a lot, so I have lots of African sculpture. I have beautiful materials from Africa that are thrown about everywhere. Another sculpture in my space is of Saint Francis of Assisi. 

My hats. I am a hat-wearing woman, so I have lots of hats in my space. They keep me company.  

It's about gratitude. I keep images in my space that remind me to be grateful. And to try to be happy, and to feel like I'm a part of the motion that will take us out of this portal and into the next, healthy world. 

What was the first work of art that really mattered to you? Did it influence your approach to your work? 

Keep in mind that I am a migrant child. When I first saw Romare Bearden, it moved me immensely. As did looking at Rothko in Dallas, Texas, with my brother.  

Of course, the pieces of art that mattered most were individuals, watching Nina Simone on television, watching the Supremes, going with my parents to see a live show of James Brown—seeing myself reflected in modern music—and then being a part of the culture in that. Because we were Black people in upstate New York, we were constantly being invited. My sisters and myself, we were invited to sing at the county fairs and Future Farmers of America. 

I think all these things influenced my approach to art. It's about integration and including everybody. As well, it has always been very important to me that I was seen, that somehow my story was a part of the landscape of America. 

The Medea Project, Birthright, directed by Pew Fellow Rhodessa Jones, 2015, performed at the Brava Theater Center, San Fransico, CA. Photo by David Wilson.
The Medea Project, Birthright, directed by Pew Fellow Rhodessa Jones, 2015, performed at the Brava Theater Center, San Fransico, CA. Photo by David Wilson.

You have dedicated much of your career to producing work that tells the stories of other women. Why has this work been important to you? What benefits does this practice offer to the women whose stories you're helping to express? 

As an artist in San Francisco in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s, I had worked a lot with a women's dance company and learned a lot about sisterhood and about the politics of being female, about feminism versus womanism. Looking through that lens, the political lens of being female, long before I made the decision that I was going to work with women, it came to me. 

I was hired through the California Arts Council to come in and teach aerobics to incarcerated women, and from that experience, one of the most amazing things that happened was finding a way to help women find their voice. To help a woman say, “Yes, this happened to me. This hurts me.” 

[This lens] has played a great part in my own progression and my own success that we as women are a culture and a class. And to know that, as an African American woman, has been very important to me. 

Women hold up at least half the sky, and we are maintaining the clouds as well. I think about Beyoncé, watching her on the Grammys the other night. What a powerful force. It doesn't matter if you like her music or not, but what an amazing entity to have arrived in this place. I feel a part of that. I feel like my very life, the things that I've done, gave birth to an energy like a Beyoncé. So, to work with women has always been very important to my work. We must remember that women matter. Women matter. The culture of women has to be explored and explained. 

Do you think about your legacy, and if so, how does your thinking about it affect your practice?  

As I was just describing, I want to make work that matters. I want to make work that, politically, is important. Art for art's sake does not interest me. I want to make work that saves a life. If my artwork can save somebody's life, then good for me. It has been more than enough. 

 This is a part of the legacy for me that I want to speak to, that we as women have always been around, and the Black woman truly is God. We can debate it or not, but she is God. If you ask the mother of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, or Breonna Taylor, we have always been here, even when we're not here. 

I'm thinking constantly about how do you make something that will last? How do you make performance art that will last? 

The Medea Project, Birthright, directed by Pew Fellow Rhodessa Jones, 2015, performed at the Brava Theater Center, San Fransico, CA. Photo by David Wilson.
The Medea Project, Birthright, directed by Pew Fellow Rhodessa Jones, 2015, performed at the Brava Theater Center, San Fransico, CA. Photo by David Wilson.

What are you most looking forward to about your year in Philadelphia? 

I'm looking forward to the various coalitions that hopefully I will find in Philadelphia around my work. In the city of brotherly love, I am very curious as to how and if there are rituals of resilience that affect the community, but definitely artists, in this time of the pandemic. 

I want to be able to work with some women's groups. I'd like to make some work at Painted Bride Art Center. I want to see what kind of gatherings I can create, how I can influence something as simple as artists coming together to talk about Black Lives Matter. 

For me, as a woman artist, I'm building a work entitled The History of the Vagina. Philadelphia is going to be an interesting place to create reading circles together with women, with those persons who identify as women, with various trans communities, and have conversations about the female body. I'm really curious as to what I will find about building this work, The History of the Vagina, and my vagina, in particular. Philadelphia has always been a teeming place for revolution, for culture.  

I am also interested in visiting the Africa family from MOVE. I'm really interested in what is left of that, and will I be able to meet with folks who lived through that terrorist attack by the city of Philadelphia? And I'm also interested in visiting the oldest churches, because my sister and I are building a piece entitled Job. It's about the character Job in the Bible, but we'd like to put it in one of the oldest churches in Philadelphia with actors from around the city. 

I want to get into some good trouble. 

How do you think or hope your practice might evolve during your residency? 

As I face my eighth decade, I would hope that the time I spend in Philadelphia will be a time of sharing what I know on a larger scale. I'm open to lectures about my work. I'm open to writing. I would like to write a book about this particular Fellowship, because I think it's amazing to be chosen to do this and to have the down time, in Philadelphia away from my home in San Francisco, to do a lot of self-examination and hopefully come up with another handbook. Right now, I'm finishing up Nudging the Memory: Making Theater with Incarcerated Women, which is a mixture of acting techniques as well as my autobiography. I'm curious to see, will I be able to give birth to another book, another series of conversations about all the things I just described? 

I hope that in meeting folks and being in a position where I can just live and be and create in Philadelphia that I will sense an elevation that I can share with the communities there.