An alumna and faculty member approaches theatre as a force for changing minds and society.
Tisch Jones comes from a line of preachers and artists. Her grandfather was an activist pastor in New Orleans, her mother a classical pianist, her family fighters for civil rights in the segregated South. Their legacy inflects Jones’ description of her work.
“It’s my ministry,” she says. “Connecting activism and art seems natural for me, like the reason I was put here.” But then she laughs and offers a more prosaic explanation: “Honey, I don’t know—I just do it because it has to be done.”
A University of Iowa alumna and associate professor of directing and theatre history, Jones leads the Darwin Turner Action Theatre (DTAT), a program that tackles social problems with help from community volunteers and students in her Theatre for Social Outreach course. She also teaches African American theatre and a class that examines diversity on stage.
Her life as an actor, director, writer, and teacher is driven by the belief that theatre can change minds and change society. Through DTAT and other initiatives, she’s turned her attention on creating new work, often out of necessity.
“There are plays that need to be done, stories that need to be told, discussions that need to take place, and the scripts aren’t always out there,” she says. Filling the gaps in the cultural, historical, and contemporary narrative isn’t a vocation for Jones—it’s a duty.
Born in Oklahoma City in 1948, she entered a middle class milieu that emphasized education, tradition, and responsibility in the face of racism. That stability was shaken by her father’s death when Jones was 6.
Suddenly the family’s sole breadwinner, Jones’ mother entered a PhD program at The University of Iowa, moving back and forth between her studies and short-term teaching jobs. Jones, meanwhile, lived with family and friends and attended schools across the south.
In the early 1960s, Jones’ mother landed a teaching assignment at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg, and soon both mother and daughter took up the civil rights fight.
“I went to jail seven times, walked a picket line, and joined the fight to desegregate Orangeburg from 1962 to 1964,” she says. Just as Jim Crow began to fall, Jones returned with her mother to Iowa City, where Jones attended her first integrated school and later enrolled at the UI.
As a theatre student, Jones discovered work by African American playwrights through Black Action Theatre, a course pioneered by the late UI professor Darwin Turner, which combined academic study with a full-fledged production each semester.
“It was a lot of work, but a wonderful tool,” Jones recalls. “I developed my experiential teaching style out of that course, and many of us who are now professors, directors, and actors wouldn’t be doing what we do if it weren’t for Black Action Theatre.”
Jones returned to the Department of Theatre Arts in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences as a faculty member in 2001, expanding Black Action Theatre into an outreach program that represents a spectrum of people and issues. She renamed it in honor of Turner, began developing a repertoire suited to different casts and audiences, and welcomed performers from throughout the community.
“We open our doors—we’ve always done that,” says Jones of DTAT and African American theatre productions at Iowa. “Our audition process is not about your acting ability, but your social commitment.”
Jones’ other projects include an autobiographical piece that recounts the degradations of racism and the victories of the Civil Rights Movement—victories that now ring somewhat hollow, she says.
“I’m not trying to suggest we were better off under segregation,” Jones says of questions she raises in I Got Something to Say: A Black Woman’s Sonata, which is alternately nostalgic, funny, challenging, and reflective. “I’m just asking us to look at where we are today.”
Jones is looking forward, too, dreaming of an eventual return to the city she calls home—New Orleans, a family hub for generations. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, she and colleagues from other Iowa schools organized a program that donates surplus costumes to the theatre department at flood-ravaged Dillard University.
For Jones, New Orleans seems the perfect site to establish a socially engaged theatre company. “I believe everything I’ve done has prepared me for this,” she says. “How I’m going to do it, I don’t know.”
If history is any indication, Tisch Jones will find a way.
Story by Lin Larson; Photo by Tim Schoon
May 12, 2008