The Lion King
In “Pump, Plié, Jump,” Cornelius Jones reclaims his muscles, vanity and love after a HIV-positive diagnosis. When he performs the piece, he interacts with the audience. He flirts, lures and asks questions about his body. He breaks into exercise: he runs, sweats and chugs water. He confesses about the HIV related mental breakdown. The performance ebbs and flow between terror and revival; however, the poem’s nerve is the literal deconstruction of the body. The pump — the weight lifting — breaks down muscle fibers to build muscle endurance and mass. The plié is the brace before flight, a whisper from Randall Keenan’s Visitation of Spirits. In the poem, the body negotiates as utility — an internalized whisper — or through flight. He runs away from what Debra Walker King’s declares is our racist subconscious that whispers blackness is “a receptacle for other’s people suffering, an “other” existing to support a nation’s belief in its pain-free status.”
Buff Boys in jeans
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Cornelius Jones is a poet, actor, and dancer. For five years, he was Simba from Broadway’s The Lion King. He is enamored with playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, of Moonlight and sees a direct link between The Lion King and his coming out. Jones is a faithful practitioner of Yoga and a queer, HIV-positive Black artist living in Los Angles. He is the author of poetry collection Sprit and Life but does not read but rather performs his work influenced by dance and Broadway training. During this particular event, he softens into his widowed mother for a persona poem about her falling in love and eventually marrying another woman in late adulthood. His work brushes against the funny bone and matters of the heart. Jones’ work is specifically notable as there is little generational memory of the 1992 NBA reaction to Magic Johnson’s return to basketball or rapper Eazy-E’s death from AIDS in 1995. Health resources and education remains low as HIV rates remain high. Black AIDS day is February 7th and is hardly observed, at least in Virginia, because of its unwavering stigma even though brown and black people are disproportionately affected by HIV. We are bereft of AIDS education and related initiatives done in the 90s. Hell, we hardly have those 90s songs and pop culture moments about AIDS awareness created by Elton John, TLC, or Madonna. We fight, we grieve, we move on and forget. Right now, the key discussions in black communities concern Black deaths by law enforcement. We have just started to enthuse radical self-care into the lexicon of resistance training and pedagogy. The intersections of health discussion — from HIV to mental health — remains taboo. Although people with HIV are living longer, healthier lives, the virus is unyielding as it impacts our beloved communities with desirability, love and health. Accordingly, Cornelius Jones’ work is timeless.
Listen to Cornelius Jones Jr. read his poem Pump, Plié, Jump here.
Kimberly Williams: Could you tell me a little bit about Pump, Plié, Jump — the catalyst, performance and other qualities that inform the piece?
Cornelius Jones Jr.: Well that piece, definitely is about my experience, part at least, coming to terms with being HIV+ and also coming out about being HIV+, so the piece is a journey through all of that.
When I initially wrote it, it was just what it was, words on page. I had an idea that I wanted to perform it allowing the words to speak to me through movement because my base, my foundation is movement, you know, movement, dance, that’s my background, my foundation and it was again a piece that I knew I wanted to share and begin to perform.
Whenever I do that piece it’s interesting, I always have a moment like physically afterwards, it’s a moment of being drained, physically after the number which speaks to a lot that you may not understand or can’t get words, but you can see through the journey of the piece performed live how it’s a journey just physically draining to the point that you are like you are one way intoxicated physically, intoxicated mentally, emotionally. Then you know you get to that place of being drained so much that you can only just detoxify and release and just let it go.
You know I was still was a young man living life and wanting to what 20-years-old do and thinking like a 20-year-old. So I was like, hey, I want that connection, I want somebody to love me for me. And so I was caught up in, and not in a bad way, I was caught up in the vanity of it all. Within the black gay community, it was, in my experience, at that time in the black gay community, it was even within our own community, we had our own inter-homophobia, inter-AIDS phobia, where we are intra- shame each other and hated on each other because of having a positive diagnosis. So if you looked a certain way. If you looked like you were sick, you know it was a thing: oh no you don’t go near that person. So it was a thing of you know, I know I’m pos, I’m not out about it yet, but I need to; I know I’m pos, but I don’t want to look pos. I love going to the gym and I love the benefits on one aspect it was giving me, physically giving me the health benefits and giving me the vanity benefits to also look good so I am desirable — so I’m still desirable to whoever I want to be with or whoever may come across me. Maybe I’m positive, but maybe they look at this good aesthetic, physically aesthetic and maybe that’ll, know you, be a pass — a free pass: oh well you look good so. You know that was a thing, a lot of people’s experiences back then. A few people I talked to, hey you know I am with someone who is negative and they love how I look, and you so that is good and you know you don’t look pos so that’s okay.
You know you don’t look this way so you’re fine. And that was just my experience. I am not ashamed how I felt because I was young and that was just something I had to learn and go through and experience and deal with. I still had this internal struggle going on and my own internalized homophobia, my own internalized HIV/AIDS phobia. Mentally and emotionally my psyche was breaking down and I had a moment of psychosis, where I did have a nervous breakdown and I had to be hospitalized. I had to get my emotional state together. And I give much light to that at the end.
Pump, Plié, Jump brings in that element of my performance side, you know plié-ing is stretching through the soul, through the movements. Stretching, going below, beneath the surface, you know, jumping. So that is in a long dissertation that I just gave. That’s the journey.
KW: Great and thank you for that analysis. I think that complication of desirability and growth is still a soft subject we don’t discuss in underrepresented communities. Okay, now I really want to touch on more elements from your book too, Shadow and Lights when you become Simba in the Lion King and particularly with this quotation:
“Just the song The Circle of Life and the character Simba who was finding his way back home, literally and metaphorically, my life, in similar ways, began to parallel this journey. On a critical level, I was in constant conflict with my identity, mainly my sexuality and self-worth. I was “out” or at least appeared to be “out,” however I was struggling internally with homophobia. I could never knock nor rid those stories and images of gay men being denounced in the church, my family insults of my cousin Jeffery and his effeminate behavior, the school kid’s jokes and the harsh treatment of someone who appeared or acted gay, and the cultural societal perceptions of homosexuality and what it means to be and live like a man” (99).
KW: Can you talk a little more about that revelation with Simba?
CJ: Everything happens in divine order and I stayed, not in the sense that I was forced to stay but my journey with The Lion King was on and off for 10 years and it was a place where I needed to be and needed to grow. I was also growing as an artist on stage in the role of that show. And in that journey of Simba, it was a journey that just so paralleled my journey, you know, for a great portion of my life. I remember when losing my father, I felt like to save him it was part of my responsibility to “get my life together” — you know not be gay anymore. So yeah, some other deep, deep, deep stuff that I kept along the way with me. The journey throughout that show allowed me to come to this place of really full self-acceptance, you know self-discovery.
But I just want to speak — there is this song in the show that Simba talks about where it is called “Endless Night.” (Sings) Where has the starlight gone. Dark as the day. How can I find my way home?
I was taking over my kingdom, talking back my life and going back to that young boy, that inner child that helped bring me to this place of where I am right now with the help and assistance from my family and my mother and father as well. Also getting back to that little boy they had, which was so happy about being who he is in his life.
KW: Okay wow, what a beautiful parallel. Along those similar concepts of deconstruct another quotation where you snip from Tim’m T. West — Gaze on Mandigo, An Introduction (from the collection “Red Dirt Revival”).
My belief is if black men can begin to disavow unhappy attachments to our subjection then we can then begin the proactive process of becoming (105).
CJ: Well first, Tim’m T. West is one of my good friends, mentor, writing mentor, just life mentor. So I love him so much and he was definitely the inspiration for me writing this book.
That quote came into the book from a thesis paper where I was exploring works of black gay men, primarily whose works spoke to this sense of transformation through the arts medium.
I came across in my research, Paul D. Hardman, if I’m correct, and he wrote this book called “Homoaffectionalism.” And he coined the term himself homoaffection. I am paraphrasing a little bit but basically he was talking about getting to the core essence of natural affection, affinity for another man regardless of a physical, sexual attraction. You know getting back to that natural, for example, when you were a young kid, you looked at your dad as, that’s my father or you looked at your brother, that’s my big brother. That’s my cousin. Or your best friend, that’s my best friend. Take all the other stuff out. Take all the other stuff out of the fact that that’s my best friend, he is gay, and he HIV+. He’s in jail or on drugs, or whatever. Let’s just strip all of that away and let’s get underneath the masks and get back to love and who we are as people, self love and love for ourselves, and love for our brothers.
KW: Okay so stretching the concept of love, can you just talk a little bit about black love in your work?
CJ.: We suffer and shame each other maybe because someone else from another race or culture has shamed us, so it’s like we eat it, immerse ourselves in that shame, and take it out on ourselves and everybody else. I think it happens a lot in the black community. I believe it’s important to not single anybody out who doesn’t identify as black. Oh this is our problem, this needs to be all about us. It is just systematically and historically we’ve been through as a race. We’ve been through a lot of oppression and racism. It is important to get back to black love to build us up.
Now, I’m saying that you need to go out and marry a black man or marry a black women. Maybe you have to or maybe you need to but get to a place where you love your blackness. You know, you love your blackness enough that you can interact with anybody else of any race or background, economics or whatever and still love who you are and are not offended by anything somebody else’s harm. You love yourself enough and even if you are offended by what someone said or did to you personally, you love yourself enough to speak up for yourself and to speak up in love, you know with love, and leave that situation with love. And it is also about being assertive. Assertive, confident, and affirming is getting back to that foundation of black love.
KW: Last question, Moonlight won the Oscars, the Academy!!
CJ.: It did! I lovvveee Moonlight!
KW: Could you just tell me about the importance of Moonlight being in the forefront right now in cinema and race discussion, and the importance of the play, too?
CJ.: The importance of the play is so relevant and rich. It’s giving voices to black gay men, to this conversation of black gay men, black love, what is black love; it’s also speaking to so many different things: masculinity, black masculinity, what is black masculinity? Sometimes we keep this conversation and discourse within the education institution, colleges, grad schools and stuff. It’s awesome to see a movie reaching the masses and having this discourse that we would be having behind this sort of institutional closed doors. But taking it boarder so we can fully understand what it is, what it means: the different faces of a gay black men.
This is speaking volumes to how we feel about ourselves as people and how we need to respect ourselves and be respected and noticed and seen in the world at large, you know.
Tarell Alvin McCraney, I love love love his work. As a playwright, my favorite is actually Marcus, or the Secret of Sweet — another beautiful coming out story, coming to terms story with the character of the show. He also has this struggle with his deceased father as well so it’s got that hold of Simba too. While he is also still coming to terms with who he is and it’s told in this nice mystical spiritual way as well.
But I think Moonlight is a great vehicle for us to have this conversation around black gay men and what is means be black and gay and in love.
I think it is beautiful that it is opening up his work to a larger audience and I think it’s beautiful within the black community as well. If we can’t have a conversation, one like that might grow on a microcosmic level, then how are we going to have it on that macrocosmic level? How are people going to really going to understand and respect us if we aren’t respecting ourselves at the root and core foundation? If we aren’t respecting ourselves in just our basic families? Conversations with our mothers, our fathers, brothers, our sisters, aunts, and uncles. I am excited to where it’s going to take us.