Vocal Minority

She comes on strong, this Rhodessa Jones. It's her voice. Mezzo-soprano, rich, resonant. Passionate, persuasive. Thousands of lines of theater dialogue have been recited with this voice; hours of conversation spoken, philosophizing with friends, mentors, students. Her exquisite command of the language is enhanced by the sound of the words she uses--and seemingly never minces. "I say to folks that I was sent into so many avenues of my work for a purpose," Jones says from the University of Texas at Dallas, where she is the first artist in a month-long residency program. The program is the brainchild of Venus Opal Reese, UTD assistant professor, who says each year "a noted performing/theater/music/visual artist of African descent premieres a new work at UTD." Jones danced, until an injury stopped her; now she performs with her mind and her voice.

"This school is a very wonderful laboratory," Jones says. "There is such a diverse population of students. If we were to believe what the mass media tells us--that young black people are not in college, that they are dying on urban streets--you would not expect to find what I am finding at this university." Jones says her purpose here is to "rattle the class" and to put a human face and persona on a world filled with impersonal information. "My concern is to share as much as I know about the world, because that's what makes great artists and great actors. These young people have all this information at their fingertips. I say, why not ask questions and gain information from a living breathing human being? I say to them, 'What do you think about this?' I'm here to share myself and my experiences."

Jones' experiences are remarkable, coming of age as she did in the 1970s in San Francisco, dancing and performing in theater during the feminist movement, the gay rights movement and experiencing firsthand the AIDS crisis as it evolved. "It was a dark time in the city," she says. "I was always on the side of the people, so I went to every rally. I was dancing during the day and worked in peep shows to earn a living so I could continue to dance." She says a kind of serious tone pervaded San Francisco at that time. "The party was over," she says, "and people had to stand up and decide what they were doing with their lives."

Dancing in the "nudie shows" notwithstanding, Jones set about to use performance art to influence and uplift people's lives. She created the Medea Project, working with women in prison to help them express themselves through theater and dance. Her Parachute Project reaches troubled adolescents through theater training and performance. Her recent projects also include performing in the Vagina Monologues, Hot Flashes, Power Surges and Private Summers, Trail of Her Inner Thigh and From Whores to Matriarchs: Black Women Survivors on the Edge. "I will speak to the audience," she says. "I will step in and break the fourth wall. "

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Annabelle Massey Helber