Brooklyn Goes to Williamstown: Rebecca Naomi Jones: A star grows in Brooklyn
There’s an endearing and enduring shtetl parable about two female twins — one who’s always pessimistic, the other who’s always optimistic. Since they are identical in every other way, their parents decide to consult the local rabbi. He suggests an experiment.
He takes the pessimistic twin and locks her in a room filled with brand-new toys. For an hour, the rabbi observes the child through a window. She never moves to play with any of the toys. When, after an hour, the rabbi enters the room, he asks the pessimistic twin why she didn’t play with the toys. “They were all brand new and I was so afraid that I might break them.”
Then the rabbi takes the optimistic twin to an empty horse barn, filled with nothing but hay and dung. He locks in the optimistic twin and, once again, observes through a window. The child dives into the hay, actively and contently, as if into a sandbox. When the rabbi re-enters the barn, he asks the girl why she was so happy playing in the hay. “Because I knew somewhere underneath all that hay there had to be a pony.”
The actress and singer Rebecca Naomi Jones (who lives in Prospect-Lefferts Gardens) is definitely an optimist. She’s always looking for the pony — and she’s sure it will be there. She’s unsinkable, unstoppable and not afraid of breaking any toys. And she’s unfailingly a treat to watch, whether in film, on television or in theater. She’s also a changeling, seemingly effortlessly transitioning from Whatsername in “American Idiot” to Lala/Abby in “The Fortess of Solitude” to Yitzhak in the Broadway production of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” She’s also a delight to interview.
Now, as Jess in “Cost of Living,” currently playing at the Williamstown Theatre Festival and then transferring to the Manhattan Theatre Club in the spring, Jones has taken on another challenging role — one that calls for a delicate balance of steeliness and sympathy, self-preservation and vulnerability. She more than pulls it off. The play is a four-hander, with two of the disparate characters, Jess and Eddie (played by the always astounding, prodigiously gifted Wendell Pierce) finding their way to mutual grace and absolution by the play’s end.
Last month, by telephone, Jones and I spoke. She discussed her interesting familial background, a kind of modern-day variation of “Abie’s Irish Rose…”
Eagle: What was it like being raised by a Jewish mother and an African-American father? Did you grow up in an observant home? Did you go to shul? Were you bat-mitzahed?
RNJ: My maternal grandparents were quite observant; after they passed away we became, as my mom describes it, “gently observant.” I mean, we did go to synagogue on the high holy days and I was bat-mitvahed. But it wasn’t “Yentl!”
Eagle: What’s your father’s background?
RNJ: He was the musical director for a variety of doo-wop groups; in fact, as a child, I remember the Crystals, the Coasters and other groups coming to our apartment in Tribeca. This was before Tribeca became all fancy-pants; it was still gritty and real. My dad loved music; in fact, my mom did, too. But where she gravitated toward The Beatles, my dad was Motown, Michael Jackson, anything that was super-polished and produced. Music of all kinds saturated my life. I grew up listening to jazz, punk, alternative rock. Then I got into Joni Mitchell; Crosby, Stills & Nash; Neal Young. I wanted to listen to everything! Totally eclectic…
Eagle: You’ve done drama and you’ve done musicals. Do you deliberately try to go back and forth between the two?
RNJ: You know, it’s not a deliberate choice. It’s about the quality of the material, no matter the genre. The material has to “speak” to me. I love working, but I can’t commit to something that doesn’t feel like the right fit. It’s not fair to the material or to me.
Eagle: What attracted you to the role of Jess in “Cost of Living”?
RNJ: I had seen Martyna’s [playwright Martyna Majok, whose interview appeared in the June 23 issue of the Eagle] “Ironbound” at the Rattlestick Theatre. It was exciting and refreshing to see working-class people depicted in a play. As you know, Martyna herself has worked all sorts of jobs, so she really knows these people. Jess doesn’t have the luxury of being “nice” or “pleasant.” Her circumstances have forced her always to be pragmatic, efficient. She doesn’t have time for etiquette. This was a challenge for me, because I’m pretty much the opposite. I’m accustomed to being amenable and accommodating — but then I’ve had the luxury of a life that has allowed me to make decisions based on my emotions. Jess has to make decisions based on necessity.
Eagle: I know that this is your first time performing at the Williamstown Theatre Festival (WTF). Had you been to Williamstown before, to attend any festival productions? Had you ever auditioned for any other WTF productions?
RNJ: Of course I was aware of the Williamstown Theatre Festival, but I had never been and I don’t think I had ever auditioned for them. When they asked me to audition for “Cost,” I was elated, since, as I’ve mentioned, I was familiar with Martyna’s work. My audition was tough, because I was just meeting Greg [Mozgala, one of her co-stars in “Cost of Living”] for the first time, and they asked me to do the shower scene. As you know, having seen the play, that’s a very difficult and challenging scene to pull off. But I guess I did, because, to my continuing joy, I got the part.
Eagle: When you went on the road for the first time with “Rent,” did you get homesick? How long did it take you adjust to the rigors of a “bus & truck” tour?”
RNJ: It was both demanding and exciting. We’d be in these small, off-the-grid towns and small cities, which was a real education for a city girl like me. But one of the great satisfactions of doing “Rent” in these places was that, after almost every performance, teenagers would tell us how much the play meant to them, usually because many of them were gay and they felt like the play had given them the courage to be open and proud about it.
Eagle: Finally, as always, a Brooklyn question: What do you enjoy about living in Prospect-Lefferts Gardens?
RNJ: I particularly enjoy being so close to the park. When the weather’s warm enough, I’ll make a cup of coffee and take it to the park to drink, imagining that the park is there just for me. It’s a lovely way to start the day. Alone and peaceful — until, almost without exception, some guy comes by, initially asking me innocuous questions and then, inevitably, hitting on me. That’s when the spell is broken!
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