Joanna Jones is acting as the “new girl” in multiple ways.
As Peggy in the Broadway production of Hamilton, Jones is part of the iconic Schuyler sisters trio. But now that her first year co-starring in the Broadway juggernaut has ended, she is taking a temporary break from the show to expand her repertoire elsewhere (fret not, she’ll return to Hamilton after Christmas).
Currently, Jones is starring in School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play as newly transferred student Ericka Baofo. Written by Jocelyn Bioh, the poignant production has come to Los Angeles after an acclaimed Off-Broadway run. Now playing in Los Angeles through September 30 at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, the daring high school drama marks Jones’ non-musical stage debut.
She and I spoke about the differences between performing in plays and musicals, the universal themes of the teenage girl experience, her aspirations as a solo recording artist, the cultural impact of Hamilton, her favorite memories from her various high-profile television appearances and more.
ALEX NAGORSKI: Why was School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play the perfect follow-up project for you after Hamilton?
JOANNA JONES: Well, I’ve been doing musical theater for so long now. It’s kind of every musical theater person’s dream that they get to do a straight play at least once. It doesn’t always happen! So the opportunity to do one was something I had been wanting for a really long time.
When this play presented itself, it was something I definitely could not pass up. On top of that, I had just heard such amazing things about it because of its Off-Broadway run last year. It had gotten the most amazing reviews.
A lot of my Hamilton friends actually had seen the show and were like, “That play’s amazing!” They already knew that the playwright was awesome because her boyfriend, Austin Smith, was in Hamilton as well. I was just hearing the most wonderful things about it everywhere I turned.
I was getting to a point where my first year with Hamilton was coming close to an end and I was deciding what I wanted to do next. I’m actually going to go back into Hamilton after this show, but they were gracious enough to give me the time off to work on this project because it’s something I really wanted to do.
I hadn’t seen the show before accepting the role but reading the script made me realize how perfect this piece could be for me on a personal level. And career-wise, I liked that this could be the show to prove that I can do things other than just musicals.
Since this was your first non-musical stage venture, what were the biggest challenges of performing in a straight play?
One challenge that I’m finding is that we don’t have microphones. I’ve spent the last two decades using a microphone and singing in some really large theaters. Plays are done in a little bit of smaller venues and there’s no microphone, so you have to find a way to use your breath support to project your voice and fill the whole space. A lot of my co-actors have mentioned that even the theater we’re in now, the Kirk Douglas Theatre, changes how the sound and the vibrations travel through the room. So that aspect has been very interesting and exciting.
On an acting level, this piece deals with some very uncomfortable subject matter, so it’s certainly a challenge to keep that feeling fresh and honest when you’re doing it eight times a week. It’s so important to deal with the emotional subject matter and continue to keep it truthful to yourself because every night is a new audience that has not seen this before. Of course, that’s the same in a musical, but it’s different to delve into subject matter like this and express it through scene work rather than a song.
It’s also been challenging being new to a play when a lot of the other actresses were already in the show before. I kind of felt like I had some catching up to do because they had already built this thing amongst themselves. But it was also a very open environment creatively when myself and a couple of the newer actresses came in. We were able to mold something that has elements of the former production but was still something that was new to all of us.
How is Ericka a new and/or different type of character for you to play on stage?
I’ve never had to play a character that was specifically biracial for a reason. I get cast in things either as an ethnically ambiguous person or as a black girl. But being biracial is very important and specific to this story. Ericka is half white and half black. I’ve never been in a show where that subject matter is highlighted.
It’s really interesting because it’s not actually something that gets talked about a lot – that idea of what it feels like to be from both worlds and be both ethnicities. So I think being cast because of who I actually am in real life is something that makes playing this character different for me.
How much – if at all – did working on this show remind you of your own high school experiences?
It’s kind of eerily similar, actually. We moved a lot when I was growing up and I went to several different schools, so I had the “new girl” experience multiple times. I remember how it felt to be lost and vulnerable and enter into an environment that was already established. Like, the social relationships were already established and I’d have to figure my way into them. I’d try to fit into groups that really didn’t feel right to me and then tried other groups and so on.
Schools always have the “cool” group and the “dorky” group. I would try to fit into the “cool” group sometimes but I always felt like I wasn’t enough – like I wasn’t living up to it or I didn’t have enough money to fit into that group. Maybe it was just that I could feel more like myself in the “dorky” group.
All that to say is that I don’t think I ever experienced the level of meanness that’s portrayed in this specific play but I definitely experienced the feeling of not fitting into a group – especially when it’s the “cool” group and a specific person is in charge. There’s a hierarchy situation. I’ve definitely experienced the terror that goes into being a new girl and the weird hormones involved in teenage social hierarchy.
There were some dark times being the new girl back then. I’m definitely calling upon those memories in the play.
Although it’s set at an exclusive boarding school in Ghana, the play explores many universal themes. How do you think that having the show take place in Africa underlines both the similarities and differences that teenage girls face around the globe?
That’s a good question. My co-star, MaameYaa Boafo, who plays the mean girl, actually addressed something similar to that the other day and I liked what she said. She said that even though it’s set in Africa, the feelings that we have at that age are all kind of the same in a way. The feeling of wanting to belong and fit in, or the feeling that if you are insecure, can sometimes lead to a coping mechanism of putting other people down. That’s kind of a universal thing. At that age, you don’t really know who you are and you’re trying to figure that out. Sometimes that brings out the worst in people.
How much did Mean Girls– both the film and the musical – impact your approach to taking on the role of Ericka?
I love that movie! Again, I’ve been fortunate enough not to experience the level of cruelty both in that movie or in this play. But Lindsay Lohan’s approach to really having no idea how to fit into a completely new country definitely helped. Just like the level of discomfort and uncertainty that goes into not only going to a new school but also moving to a new country and culture. When you do that, you’re afraid to offend or say the wrong thing and you’re not sure what’s customary for people. So Mean Girls definitely informed Ericka in that way.
Is there a key takeaway that you hope audiences have after seeing the show?
Yes! I mean, the play is really about colorism and challenging the ideas of what we believe is beautiful. My hope would be that audiences take away something that challenges their minds, their spirits and their collective awareness. I hope that people that have felt not beautiful will be comforted and then change their perspective as well. I want them to have hope that they are beautiful and that while beauty is everywhere, it’s just a social construction. Everyone is beautiful no matter what age or what skin color they have or whatever else. I just hope that it challenges people’s view of what we prescribe to as beautiful around the world.
When I interviewed your Hamilton co-star, Mandy Gonzalez, she told me that “Hamilton has done some incredible things and has set the bar to new levels all the way around. Not just artistically, but what it is doing socially too. It’s so important. I’m very proud to be a part of it.” Do you agree with that statement? Why or why not?
Yeah, I agree with Mandy 100%! Lin-Manuel Miranda and a lot of the actors that they put in are people who have strong opinions and are activists, world shakers and world changers. They’re people who have a voice. So it’s wonderful that Hamilton can be used as a platform for social change and justice in the world.
Of course, the whole idea that Hamilton is cast multi-ethnically in a colorblind way on purpose is a message in itself. I think it’s really wonderful for people to come to the show and see George Washington, the President of the United States, as a black man. My hope is that people don’t even think twice when they come. They’re just watching a show and they just accept that immediately without any hesitation. The focus isn’t the color of the actors’ skin. The focus is on watching the story of our country being formed. The idea that people watching aren’t even thinking about color is just really exciting.
It doesn’t matter if you’re black, Asian, Latino, white, anything. That’s huge! We’ve never seen something like that on this level before. So I agree with Mandy wholeheartedly because this show is having huge impacts on American culture and society. It’s reaching everywhere. It’s a really wonderful and special thing that’s been created.
Tell me a little bit about Why Mona, your musical side project with producer Unlike Pluto. You’ve released covers of many iconic songs, like “Go Your Own Way,” “We Will Rock You” and “Stayin’ Alive.” How do you decide which songs you want to put your own spin on and are there plans for a full album?
I think in the beginning we wanted to pick songs that people would never think of covering. Like one of our very first ones was “Wannabe” by the Spice Girls. That’s not a song that a lot of people think to cover. There are other songs that naturally lend themselves to being covered – like beautiful pop songs that could easily be turned into like a slow, acoustic jam. But we didn’t want to be too obvious.
We wanted to pick songs we both loved but also songs that would be difficult to cover because you would have to completely deconstruct and rebuild a new sound. Our goal is to reinvent classics in ways that no one would ever think of hearing those songs.
We’ve been releasing a song every month at this point and we plan to keep going. Right now, we’re focusing on licensing to get the songs placed on TV shows and movie trailers and stuff like that. But I definitely wouldn’t rule out the idea of an album in the future! Our next release is going to be “Sinnerman” by Nina Simone. We’re finishing that up now and it will hopefully come out next month.
People often ask me what our sound is but I don’t really know how to describe it honestly. It’s jazzy at times but it’s also grungy ‘90s-ish. It’s really fun!
You have such a beautiful and unique singing voice. Who were some of your most formative musical inspirations growing up? And do you have plans on releasing any solo recordings?
Thank you! My dad is a musician and he exposed us to a lot of different types of music. I think maybe that’s why I have an eclectic sound. I grew up listening to Christian music and gospel, as well as rock music like U2 and the Dire Straits. We also listened to a lot of world music, piano music, Brazilian jazz, Keiko Matsui, Cliff Richard – just a super strange assortment.
When I got older and started to do musical theater, the voices that have drawn me have been more like Barbara Streisand. I love the way that she tells stories through her voice and tone. Lana Del Ray is my favorite contemporary artist. I adore the way that she writes and her vintage sound. I like to pull from a lot of different styles in order to create whatever sound comes out. Amy Winehouse is up there on my list as well. I also like jazz artists – Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan. Those were hugely influential for me. So it’s a little bit of everything.
And yes, I do have plans as a solo artist! I’ve lived in New York for a year now, but while I’m based in LA for this play, I’ve been working on a lot of my own stuff. There are contractual things happening that mean I can’t release those things right now but I absolutely plan on pursuing a recording artist career. That’s definitely on the top of my list!
Now that I’ve found my bearings in New York City, I’ll continue to record solo stuff. I’m actually doing a little concert in October at the Green Room 42 where I’ll be singing the songs of artists that have inspired me and my sound. Hopefully I’ll be doing more stuff like that – live gigs and recording. But yes, I do plan to release my own solo things in the near future.
In 2010, you performed as part a capella group The Backbeats on reality show The Sing-Off. How did that experience shape you as a musical artist?
That was a very exciting time for me! I was in school at UCLA and I was studying musical theater at that time, so I think the opportunity to perform on television singing pop songs was very exciting and appealing to me. It was like another classroom where I was learning what it’s like to be in the music industry. I was so young back then. It was a growing experience because I had to learn to refuse to be afraid. There was really no time to be afraid! The camera was on and you’re in a competition, so it was very, “go sing your song! It’s now or never!”
It definitely gave me some confidence and some balls. I love doing a cappella because I respond so well to harmonies and arrangements. That’s the beauty of harmony in arrangements –using the voice as an instrument. Your voice is the trumpet, your voice is the bass, your voice is the drum. The voice is such an incredible instrument.
A lot of the Backbeats are still some of my best friends to this day. So on a personal level, it was a wonderful experience to go through. I made lifelong friends. It was just so exciting because it showed me what types of possibilities my future music career could have.
What’s your fondest memory of being in the ensemble of NBC’s Hairspray Live! In 2016?
Oh man, there are so many of them! But I would have to say the wonderful camaraderie. Everyone was literally so incredibly excited to be there every single day. Every day was like a happiness party.
Maybe my fondest memory was that I got to play with the original Dynamites from Broadway – Shayna Steele, Judine Somerville and Kamilah Marshall. I would always slip away and hang out with them. They’re some of the fiercest singers I’ve ever heard.
It was also fun to be a dancer in that show because I don’t get to do that very often. It was really fun to work on something with an ensemble and do partner dancing. It was fun being on set as well, literally running from one set to another in between scenes.
And of course, I loved working with like Ephraim Sykes, Ariana Grande, Kristin Chenoweth and Harvey Fierstein. Everyone was just sonice and excited to be there. I couldn’t really pinpoint one specific memory. The experience as a whole was incredible.
What are some musical dream roles that you’d like to tackle after Hamilton?
As far as my musical theater tastes go, I’m kind of an old school girl. My real dream role that I don’t really tell anybody is that I can’t wait to become an appropriate age to play Mrs. Lovett it in a revival of Sweeney Todd. That’s my favorite show! Sondheim’s music is just the most stunning music I have ever heard.
It remains to be seen musical theater-wise what I would want to do next. But I do tend to gravitate more towards the classics. I would also love to do something where I had to really sing soprano because I haven’t had to do something like that in so long. I love that world as well.
CLICK HERE to purchase tickets for School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play, now playing through September 30 at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Los Angeles.
PHOTOS | Craig Schwartz and Miguel Herrera