Director-choreographer Donald Jones Jr. grew up in the Gentilly area and attended high school at Brother Martin High School, where he was president of the drama club. He got his bachelor’s degree in theater and dance from Northwestern State University in Natchitoches.
Jones lived in New York from 2013 to 2020, writing plays, teaching choreography and playing the role of Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks, in the Carnegie Hall staging of “West Side Story.” He also was part of Broadway productions such as “Frozen,” “Chicago the Musical” and “Aladdin,” in which he understudied and performed the role of the Genie.
In 2011, after being part of the ensemble cast for a national tour of “The Color Purple,” Jones moved to Seattle, where he worked for two years as a company member of Spectrum Dance Theater, run by Tony-nominated choreographer Donald Byrd. The company traveled to Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka.
In New Orleans, Jones teaches at Loyola University and is the director of this month’s Le Petit Theatre production of “The Color Purple.”
Jones, 35, talked with Verite about this staging of “The Color Purple” and his vision to help expand Black theater in his hometown. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Q: In 2020, you were working in New York as a choreographer-director for a planned production of “Dreamgirls.” And then came the coronavirus.
A: Right. That production never came to full fruition because of the pandemic. I came home to New Orleans, just planning to be here until everything cleared up. But I kind of just fell in love with being home with family. I had the opportunity to go back to New York to be in the “Harry Potter” play. But I thought about it and told my agents that I was more interested in being home and creating a space for myself here in Orleans.
Q: You learned to dance under the watchful eye of Velma Benjamin and her daughters Jean and Velda at the Benjamin Center for Dance and Gymnastics on Sere Street in the 7th Ward. Tell us about that storied place.
A: I’m actually trying to revitalize that studio, which never came back after Hurricane Katrina. We’re in the process of getting some grant funding with hopes of revitalizing that whole space into a cultural arts center, to be used for youth in the community.I learned ballet and jazz and tap for an hour and a half every Saturday morning.
Q: How do you see the state of theater in your hometown?
A: Honestly, since I’ve been home, I see how there aren’t a lot of opportunities for us to do what we do best at the highest level. Not because we don’t have deep theatrical talent and gifted artists in dance and theater. We do.
But the major theater companies here in New Orleans that actually have buildings are run by white organizations or white institutions. I would love to see New Orleans have a Black-owned, Black-run resident theater company that can program its own season within its own space or even house multiple companies.
Q: Where do you see the New Orleans influence in your work?
A: Even before I went to dance school, I did praise dance in my church, St. Philip the Apostle Catholic Church in the 9th Ward, where I learned liturgical dance and African dance. So, for me, dance is always based in some intention or spirituality.
Also, New Orleans is a genuine city. There’s not a lot of coldness, there’s not a lot of sarcasm. So in my performance, everything must be genuine.
Q: Do you ever have that moment, as you head to work, remembering when you were a child walking through the French Quarter and now you’re directing a show there?
A: That’s every day for me. The funny thing is that, for the longest, I asked, “Am I capable of this? Am I capable of taking on a team of people and leading them to a place where we get to a beautiful production?”
The biggest thing for me was being able to get into this space to do a great Black show with a Black creative team and Black artists: our vocal directors, Berkley the Artist and Raion Ramsey; a music team led by Delfeayo Marsalis and David Pulphus; hair and makeup designer Jyna Roots-Tilton; costume designer Tiffani Sheriff; and production stage manager Myjoycia Cezar.
In the production’s lead roles, we have Taylor James as Celie; Breanna Collier as Nettie; Bryan Demond as Mister; MyiaRené Carter as Sofia; Julius Chase as Harpo and Queen Shereen Macklin as Shug Avery.
Q: Tell me about the show you wrote about your dad.
A: My father, Donald Jones Sr., passed away last year around this time. Later in the year, I traveled to Cedar Point Park in Ohio and staged a new mini-musical there we called “Come See About Me,” named forthe big Supremes Motown hit.
For the show, we took music, Motown music, and turned it into a storyline. And I worked through some of my grief about my dad by using his love of music and jazz to inspire that story.
My dad was a provider. He worked for 36 years for Continental Airlines, which became United, retiring as lead supervisor for baggage. He worked really hard. And when he came home, he liked to just listen to music. He had milk crates of vinyls stacked from floor to ceiling across a whole wall. I remember him playing music loudly in his den all the time.
For years, he didn’t really understand my passion for dance because he didn’t see how it could be a career. That changed after he came to New York to see me in the opening of “Aladdin” on Broadway.
He brought the playbill and souvenir book home and showed them to everyone he met. He actually carried the playbill around with him, behind the visor of his car.
As I prepare for the opening night of “The Color Purple,” he has really been on my mind. I wish he was here to see this, but I feel his spirit with me every day. I know he is proud.
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