“As a 70-year-old African American artist, I’m not interested in art for art’s sake,” declares Rhodessa Jones, the acclaimed San Francisco-based performer, teacher, writer, and social activist. “It has to be about social change. It has to be able to save lives.”
This shouldn’t come as a surprise, since, Jones explains, it was theatre that saved her life, driving her to build an autobiographical body of work in which she could “look back at where I’ve been, embrace who I am, say out loud, ‘This makes me angry, this hurts me.’ If not for theatre, I’d be no more than a memory, or a bitch with a very bad attitude!”
The eighth among 11 siblings (choreographer Bill T. Jones is her brother), she was born to migrant farmworkers, “a good-looking family!” she says with a hearty laughter. “The African adage is, ‘Where much is given, much is expected.’ You come into the world kind of beautiful, you better step up to the plate.”
A mother at 16, she danced nude to pay the bills. Then in 1979, she met musician Idris Ackamoor. “I saw this diamond in the rough, this amazing female artist,” recalls Ackamoor. “She was so magnetic, so adventuresome.” He urged her to devote herself entirely to her art, and four years later she joined Cultural Odyssey, the now-40-year-old touring ensemble Ackamoor had founded. They began creating “duets,” with Ackamoor on sax and Jones performing. The first, “The Legend of Lily Overstreet,” about her work as a nude dancer, toured to Europe. The two were lovers for about 11 years and remain artistic partners.
Jones’s life’s work, Medea Project: Theater for Incarcerated Women (which now also includes ex-offenders), began in 1989 when she was asked to lead an exercise class at the San Francisco county jail. The women weren’t interested in aerobics, but Jones saw that creating performance workshops would bring, as she describes it, “some grace, some light, some laughter, some truth. And they could write it down and we’d sing through it, we’d jump through it, I’d be performing with them.”
With Medea Project, Jones wanted the women she worked with to “embrace the idea that they have a right to life,” as she told a South African media outlet in 2009. “Women’s lives always belong to other people.” Jones has since hosted workshops around the world: with incarcerated women in South Africa, and with women with HIV in San Francisco. In December she and Ackamoor will premiere a new duet in San Francisco, Well, Shut My Mouth Wide Open!.
According to Ackamoor, Jones is a more mature and profound artist and workshop leader now than ever, calm and grounded. “She has the ability to bond, to serve as a vessel for these women. She can be the gangsta mama; she can be soft and loving when she needs to be.”
These days Jones has been taking her form of art as activism to universities around the country; this past fall she finished a residency at Boston University. “In my work,” muses Jones, “I’m constantly trying to remind women, multiracial people, that love must be the last word.” And with love comes service. If theatre—or anything else—saves your life, she says, “You’ve got to reach back and save someone else’s life.” She then adds, “I think I’ve already done that to a degree.”