By Katherine Jamieson
Tom Jones ’78
Tom Jones ’78 was a young man—only 22—when he cofounded the Atlanta theater company Jomandi Productions. It grew to be the third-largest African-American theater company in the United States, known for producing critically acclaimed plays that toured nationwide, commissioning work from emerging and established playwrights and hosting a festival every summer in Atlanta.
Jones’ name was synonymous with Jomandi until he left 11 years ago, unhappy with what he characterizes as a push by board members to do primarily commercial productions. “We’d always done a cross section of work: commercial, avant-garde, experimental,” says Jones, who first appeared in Amherst magazine in 1985. But the company was running a deficit, and while Jones had made progress in reducing it, board members saw commercial shows as the key to long-term financial stability, he says.
Jones went on to start a small Atlanta production company, VIA, which helps to shepherd plays and musicals from early stages of development through production. VIA is now trying to attract investors and theater owners to a black musical rendition of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, titled M and M, written by Shango Amin.
Jones compares the state of black theater today to that of historically black colleges and universities during integration movements of the 1960s and 1970s, when intellectuals began to leave black colleges for the Ivy League. He argues that this move dissipated the intellectual gravitas of African-American institutions. Jones says that with less money going toward black theater, there’s less funding to develop the careers of young black playwrights. Consequently, black theaters end up doing more “retreads”—Ain’t Misbehavin’ and the like—instead of work by emerging writers.
At the same time, some African-American playwrights—Lynn Nottage, to name one—have found success in mainstream, regional theaters. Jones sees this as a positive development, although one with a downside: revenues don’t go back into fueling black theater.
Jones is an accomplished playwright in his own right, and many of his 40 plays and musicals—including A Cool Drink of Water, which re-imagines A Raisin in the Sun 50 years later—have been staged in regional theaters. Jones is now working with Broadway manager and producer Steven Chaikelson to bring two of his own shows to Broadway: Cool Papa’s Party examines African-American life in the 20th century through music and is set in a Las Vegas nightclub; Holler is“the Oedipal story told in rhythm and blues,” Jones says. These musicals have allowed him to collaborate with some “old Broadway vets,” including choreographer Maurice Hines. “It’s been an interesting journey getting there,” Jones says. “It feels triumphant.”
Photo by Rob Mattson