University show casts hidden histories in new light

Alumna returns to play role of ‘Las Meninas’ director ‘ and takes casting challenges in stride

Katie Wilber

Tisch Jones was a self-proclaimed troublemaker when she was a University student in the 1970s.

“I got kicked out of costume shop once because I broke a sewing machine,” she said, stifling a laugh.

But almost 30 years later, she’s back as a guest artist working with students on a production of Lynn Nottage’s “Las Meninas.”

“I warned them that I was still trouble,” she said, “but they still told me to come back.”

Jones is an elegant woman with a voice that goes straight to the soul, a voice like the narrator during a children’s story hour. Her stories flow from one about her daughter to another about her mother to a third about how she ended up in Minneapolis when all she wanted to do was own a theater in New Orleans.

She discusses the political and societal implications of her latest directing endeavor without breaking that stream.

Jones is a professor at the University of Iowa, but she also directed “Las Meninas” at Grinnell College. She’s changed the concept of the play to make it easier to produce (it’s now a play within a play), and the issues become even more pronounced in this edited setting.

Discrimination ‘ both racial- and gender-based ‘ is at the heart of “Las Meninas,” which is the true story of the illegitimate daughter of Queen Marie-Therese, wife of Louis XIV, and her African jester. The daughter is raised by Benedictine nuns, and she has no idea who her parents are or why she’s living in the convent.

“I can’t help but think back to slavery,” Jones said. “This story tells the sadness of a young girl who has no choice in her life because of her birth and the color of her skin.”

“Las Meninas” is not a popular play to produce, not because of the writing or the subject matter, but because of the difficulty of the cast requirements. It’s a predominantly white cast with two black characters, one of whom is a dwarf.

“If people try to cast accordingly, they won’t even bother to try casting this play,” Jones said.

She refused to be deterred. Jones’ concept focuses more on the Benedictine nuns who raise the girl. It becomes a play within a play when the nuns decide to tell the story, and the dwarf is then played by the gardener. He just gets down on his knees and puts funny shoes on his “feet,” which really are his knees. “Tisch is very inspiring, and she inspires us to go beyond the playwright’s words,” said cast member and University student Kaysone Syonesa.

While Jones is passionate about theater, she also sees it as her ministry. She’s fascinated by history, and she looks for works that illuminate and elaborate upon black history.

“I feel that this is my own way to put the truth back in the books about black history and women’s history,” she said.

Working with “Las Meninas” represents a rare chance to add to both bodies of history, as the story of this queen’s daughter, Louise, is not found in French history books.

This doesn’t mean she believes the history of women or black history should be limited only to those who are parts of one of these groups. Her favorite word is inclusion, and she uses that as a motto as well.

“Black History Month isn’t just for us,” she said. “This is ours, and it’s the world’s, just like women’s history belongs to everyone whether they’re in America or Europe.”

Perhaps that inclusive viewpoint came from her mother, a prominent University scholar and professor emeritus in the department of African and African-American studies who pushed for equal opportunities for all.

Her mother was hired by the University in 1970 and Jones followed her there and enrolled in the University. Now Jones’ daughter is a student in the Bachelor of Fine Arts/Guthrie acting program, and Jones is back at the University to direct.

“I keep getting pulled back to Minneapolis,” Jones said. “My roots are in New Orleans and I married a man from New Orleans, so I dreamed that I’d have my own theater in New Orleans.”

But her mother’s illness, her daughter’s enrollment at the University and Hurricane Katrina, changed all that.

“All these signs keep pulling me back here,” she said. “But I just never saw myself retiring in Minnesota.”