Bill T. Jones, Tony-winning choreographer of Spring Awakening and Fela! and artistic director of New York Live Arts and the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company, next lends his talents to Paradise Square, a new musical with a book by Marcus Gardley, Craig Lucas, and Larry Kirwan and the music of Stephen Foster, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Dec. 27-Feb. 17, 2019.
ROB WEINERT-KENDT: It seems like you’re very selective about your mainstream theatre gigs. This is your first since Fela! in 2009. How do you choose them, and what drew you to this one, particularly?
BILL T. JONES: Spring Awakening came about because I was invited by Tom Hulce and I met with Michael Mayer, who was a big fan of some of my work he had seen when he was a student at NYU. That, and the Wedekind angle, I was curious about. So that’s how that was chosen. Fela Kuti was someone who was very important to a lot of us, for political reasons as well as musical reasons, back in the ’70s, and I had a friend who wanted to introduce an unknown musician to Broadway.
And yes, there’s always an unexpressed fight with the Broadway tradition on my part. Because I come from the very esoteric and somewhat inward-looking world of contemporary modern dance, which I feel it is at times smug and not really appreciating popular theatre. So I’m looking for works that are going to be popular, which means they have a chance of being diverse in their appeal to various audiences, and can resolve the question of high and low.
As for Paradise Square, I was introduced to the producer by a man who had worked with him, and he said it’s a play about the Draft Riots of 1863. I thought, bingo! The Draft Riots, what a scary topic. It’s going to be talking about the world of African Americans and the Irish and the Five Points region, the first slum of America. All those things were very interesting to me. And the music of Stephen Foster: As much as I’ve been wrestling with Stephen Foster throughout my whole life, I’ve always been singing his songs, like every red-blooded American boy who was born in the 1960s. That gave me the idea that I would be able to go to the heart of the American project, and it was something that was going to be popular theatre, and that a lot of different people might be invited to come into it.
Was there ever a feeling after Fela! that you had a future as a Broadway director/choreographer, a la Bob Fosse or Susan Stroman?
My first duty in this life is to tend to Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane company. This is the child that Arnie Zane and I had. If I have outside projects, and I have intellectual curiosity and quite frankly financial needs, I look for something that will help me get out of that area I give most of my life to. When the projects come, I take them as they come, without too much cynicism, in the sense that this is gonna be a way to retire. Then you have to appreciate how much skill there is here, and how un-jaded people are about entertaining. It’s like, “Okay, well go out and find what entertainment really is, Bill; go be with professionals.” That’s worth money in its own way.
The word “dance” isn’t in your company name anymore. Why not?
Because I am developing an ensemble that can handle text, music, and movement with alacrity. We usually start with people who are primarily movers, and then we see, do they have voices? Can they handle simple text?
I imagine there’s some violence in a show about the Draft Riots. Do you worry that if you aestheticize or stylize violence into dance, you sanitize it?
I just came out of a meeting with the director, Moisés Kaufman, and we were talking about the inherent tension in this storytelling medium versus the world of dance, which by its very nature is abstract. I don’t think that on the stage you gain a lot by actually showing violence in the way that they do in Hollywood. So we have to do it by reducing the movements down to their essence, which is a choreographic process, and then playing them in counterpoint to what’s said or what’s musical. That’s what we’re doing right now—we’re all kind of excited, we’re all kinda scared about it. We don’t know where we’re going but we know how we’re going to try to get there.
What do you think this show has to say to us now?
Well, it’s starting to say a lot. We are making this show, potentially, for Trump’s second term. This is talking about a community which was the first slum in America, where those who were unwanted took refuge: slaves, Irish who were not yet white, Jews, Chinese, all living under the worst conditions. And yet it was a place where everyone wanted to come to be exposed to what was hot. This is where the term slumming came from. I always thought it was about the Cotton Club, but it was 60 years earlier that this was happening. Can a picture of this band of thieves and miscreants actually be an encouragement to our contemporary audience—that there truly was a time when people could love anyone they wanted to love, and that skin color was not the impediment to deep human relationships, and show us what it looks like to live in a community that’s sort of making it up as they go along? I think that is a good thing for a piece of popular theatre to do. That’s the spirit we’re going into it with.
Obviously then it regresses at some point.
Well, the Draft Riots—that’s America’s dirty laundry. And it’s looked at not with the idea that you did this, but the idea that we did this. I think that’s what people want; they come to warm themselves against some great vision that might have discord in it but also has heat coming from it. That’s what a work of theatre should be.
The question for me is how challenging can it be, where can it really run the risk of obscurity—just to destabilize audiences’ assumptions about the world, how to really refresh one’s eye to interracial tension. It’s no longer an issue for us, but in the world that this was in, race mixing—whenever we say that word in rehearsal we think, oh God, race mixing! But that’s a real term. How do you refresh the idea of “race mixing”?
You seemed to indicate earlier that you’re attracted scary topics. Is that true?
Yes, I am. If not now, when? I am a man who is looking at 70 years old, have been a maverick for many, many years, and now I want to participate in big conversations, and I wanna do it in a way that I know how to do it. I’m not a picket line person, I’m a little too old to be out marching. I want to make something that the bourgeois—’cause God knows who can afford the tickets—will come to and feel entertained and nourished. That’s what I want.
Do you have a favorite Stephen Foster song?
Well, I didn’t know how much I loved “Someone to Love.” Or “Beautiful Dreamer”—that was one they supposedly found in his publishers’ desk after Steven Foster died mysteriously from a wound to his neck. It’s not clear if he committed suicide or what happened. He was always struggling for money; he had been very successful when he was writing the quote-unquote plantation songs, but this was the new music he was writing, which we allude to in our show. We also allude to “Old Black Joe,” which is quite beautiful—it makes you cringe to say it, but it is actually one of his most beautiful songs.
What’s the last great piece of art you’ve experienced?
Anything by Annie Dorsen. Do you know her work? You know, she is making real inroads with the use of the internet and algorithms. And other than that, my company last weekend at UCLA did our complete trilogy—that’s one of the works I’m most proud of.
Do you ever miss dancing, personally?
You know, I dance now when I’m very, very moved, or I feel it is the only way I can communicate my love for this form. It’s not that I don’t dance, but I can’t run and jump like I used to.
Do you have happy memories of Florida, where you were born?
Yes. They are complicated memories. There is the child’s Proustian memories of a place, and then there’s the reality of it. I am a Yankee now; my dad wanted me to be a Black Yankee, and he succeeded too well, so I don’t feel too comfortable down there anymore.
You don’t feel an affinity.
Not really. There are people I love who are still there, like my cousin Purlie May; she regularly gives me the family news about people I can’t even remember. But she relates it, so I’m still in the African American pipeline.
You said you’re making this show for Trump’s second term. So obviously there’s hope that it will have a life beyond the Berkeley run.
Yes, we hope the show has a future life. Also that we solve this question of how it can be part of a discussion we’re having if Trump has a second inauguration. Maybe he won’t, but there’s every indication that he will. What does it look like on our stages? Another thing we’re trying to do: How do we get people who have been dismissed as “deplorables” to want to see the show? We’re not just a bunch of disaffected lefties—I mean, we are, but we also want to show that we’re sophisticated and we understand what’s going on. We want the deplorables to want to see the show too. How do we get there? I don’t know.
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!