“I want your soul to feel good”: Madison Jade Jones on ‘Anansi and the Halfling’

Photo by Lou Daprile

To read Anansi and the Halfling—rich with magic, brimming with gods, humans, puppets, drums, movement—you wouldn’t guess that Madison Jade Jones wrote the funny, insightful play in a rage. But she did, after a racist incident in the Seattle theater community compelled her to create the story of Maizah, a young black woman descended from an ancient line of storytellers blessed by the gods. The gods collected their stories in a lantern that nourished their eternal power—all except for the trickster god Anansi, who stole the lantern but later realized that the real power lies in the stories. Annex Theatre, where Jones serves as diversity liaison, is now gearing up for Anansi’s world premiere, codirected by Brandon J. Simmons and Jay O’Leary.

You moved from Texas a few years ago. How did you get started in Seattle theater?
I decided to start acting again when I got here and I got cast in a few things. Do you know what a white pop-up is? A white pop-up is when you have a white show and you put a black person in there, but that character goes through nothing and reacts in none of the ways that a black person would. I did a lot of those and I did a couple of slaves. And I was like, is this what we’re doing here? But then I found Annex and it felt right, everybody was nice and no one took me into a closet to ask me if they were one of the good whites, you know what I mean?

Oh god.
I love Seattle theater, but that energy drains people of color. So I stress-wrote Anansi because of that. Anansi is about a girl who turns away from her blackness and these stories of her people, and her mysticism starts to die inside of her and something has to be done. In hindsight, the intense autobiographical nature of this play may have been a bit much. [laughs]

Sounds like a draining experience.
Yeah, no, I never want to do this again! I had a story to tell and it’s on the page, and I want to go home. I wrote Anansi with the express intention that nothing bad happen to black people. No one gets sexually assaulted. No one’s dad is missing. I wanted it to be a soul-healing thing. I want you to come and experience my people’s art, song and dance. Many of the characters speak Yoruba, the limited Yoruba that I know. I want your soul to feel good. It’s going to be challenged, and your ideas are going to be challenged. But I don’t want my audience to feel like God damn, the sky is falling.

For some reason the way to “raise the stakes” in a play is often violence.
We don’t have enough practice as a society in writing characters who aren’t this heterosexual white family that has problems I can’t relate to. I get so worked up when we base everything around Greek plays, like those are the only gods that have ever existed. My gods are so fucking cool! Orishas are the sickest shit I have ever read about. Obatala is literally they/them pronouns, both a man and a woman and neither. Oya made the clitoris and then hid it between two lips so Olorun [ruler of the heavens] couldn’t take it away. That’s what my gods are trying to play with and I don’t understand when we go back to living-room drama. Are you joking? Your dad who may or may not have had an affair in 1967? I don’t care!

Oct. 25 – Nov. 17
Annex Theatre