Rhodessa Jones

at Link’s Hall, April 16-18, and at Black Ensemble, April 24 and 25

In 1987 actor-dancer-singer-writer-performance artist Rhodessa Jones began teaching aerobics at the San Francisco City Jail, a gig that quickly proved far more challenging than she’d anticipated. From her first day in this world–which was populated, she writes, by “wild, wounded, crazed, cracked, carefree, dangerous, devious, destructive but colorful women”–Jones’s skills as a “creative survivalist” were put to the test.

Big Butt Girls, Hard Headed Women is Jones’s tribute to the women she met in prison. In a series of monologues and dancelike segments, this versatile performer impersonates various people she met in her classes: the naive Doris, the crackhead Lena, the hard-bitten Regina, and the wise but cranky Mama Pearl. Where some performers might be content to create characters by changing their voice, the tilt of their head, and perhaps some key article of clothing, Jones throws her whole spine, pelvis, and soul into her performances. What else would you expect from a trained dancer? When Jones plays the elderly Mama Pearl she gets her right down to the slight shake in her palsied left arm. And when she plays tough Regina Brown–“Bigger and better bitches have tried to beat me”–you know from the way she stands, both feet planted deep, that this is not a woman to mess with.

The show follows the structure of an aerobics class: Jones introduces herself, demonstrates an exercise, even engages in some cheerleading: “All you big butt girls, it’s time to get a booty for your body! What’s the use of having a big butt if you can’t express yourself?” Jones interrupts her routine periodically to play one of the women in her class or to deliver an interior monologue as the instructor, often trying to discover order in the overwhelming chaos she finds in the prison: “That’s my mother’s face. And my sister’s face. And my daughter’s face. . . . So many masks, so many songs, so many stories.”

Despite the troubling themes of Jones’s work, and there is not a social ill–violence, drug addiction, the ongoing war against the poor–she doesn’t touch on, Big Butt Girls is remarkably free of melodrama and political cant. It’s enough just to describe this world accurately–“Eighty-five percent of all women in jail are women of color,” she says. “And 50 percent of them are African American women”–and Jones’s message is unmistakable.

Those who saw Jones three years ago, when she was Tina Turner to her sometime-collaborator Idris Ackamoor’s Ike in I Think It’s Gonna Work Out Fine, know what a brutally powerful performer she can be. Jones’s Turner was only a few degrees less white-hot than the original.

This time, however, Jones’s work seems more subtle, more reflective, more empathetic than it was in 1990. Perhaps Jones has just grown as a performer. Certainly she seems far more comfortable playing the six characters in this show than she did playing one in I Think It’s Gonna Work Out Fine.

I think there are greater forces at work here than mere technique, however. It’s clear from the first moment in the show–when Jones enters carrying a candle and singing, “Charlie, I’m pregnant, living on Ninth Street above the dirty bookstore. . . . Everyone I used to know is dead or in prison. . . . I wish I had all the money we used to spend on dope”–that the people she plays in this show mean the world to her. The depth of her connection to the material is underscored at the show’s end, when she steps up to an altar at one corner of the stage draped in black cloth and decorated with masks, candles, and hundreds of Skittles and Hershey’s Kisses and lifts up a bowl of sterilized water, calling it “a spirit catcher for one Regina Brown, who was murdered in the winter of 1989.” Then, by way of explaining her ritual, Jones jokes, “It’s a California thing.”

“Regina, daughter, sister, lover, mama,” Jones chants, and then ends her show with a bracing return to harsh realities. She reads a letter from a young nephew serving 10 to 15 in a northern California prison for manslaughter. This letter, brimming with a young man’s idealistic hopes for the future–he really seems to believe prison will give him the time to improve himself–makes Jones’s implicit message crystal-clear: these are not mere stage representations of societal forces but real people with real foibles and real lives.