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Inventing a World, One Note at a Time

O-Lan Jones creates a mythical universe for a chamber opera about the monsters in ourselves.

March 18, 2001|DIANE HAITHMAN | Diane Haithman is a Times staff writer

Life is tough for an American teenager in the Yucatan jungle. O-Lan Jones discovered this at age 15, when her free-spirited mother decided to relocate the family to a hut in a remote community of about 80 Mayan Indians.

Food was cooked in a separate hut, over a fire in a hollowed-out rock that also served as an occasional home to scorpions.

"I had no peer group, it was like, in the wild--and it turns out it's not a comforting feeling," Jones, 50, observes during a recent conversation, breaking into a characteristically zany laugh. "Whatever little rug I'd put together was whipped out from under me. I was only there for six months, but it felt like years and years. It changed my life--if it wasn't changed already.

"I was so deeply unnerved by being there, I started asking my mother if we could go someplace normal," she continues. "And she said: 'Well, we can go wherever you want--but I don't think it's going to be normal.' She was never one to mince words."

In retrospect, says Jones, artistic director of Overtone Industries, being so profoundly unnerved during her formative years was perfect preparation for a career that calls for inventing new worlds. It was a necessary skill for the theater company's most recent effort: "The Woman Who Forgot Her Sweater," a "mythical chamber opera" in one act that creates its own parallel universe. It opens Saturday at the John Anson Ford Theatre complex and runs through April 22.

The production, supported by the Los Angeles County Arts Commission and A.S.K. Theater Projects, tells the simple story of a woman summoned to the side of her dying mother. She arrives too late--only to find herself transported to a fantasy world populated with lion goddess-queens that loosely mirror the demons inside her. The show is the final offering in the second season of the (Inside) the Ford Hot Properties New Play Series.

"I think that basic stripping away of what I had known up until then has had a lasting effect, but in a good way," muses Jones, a native Angeleno whose childhood also included residencies in neighborhoods she cheerfully describes as the ghettos of Inglewood, Chicago, New York and London. Jones' mother, Scarlett Dark, named her after the character O-lan in Pearl S. Buck's 1931 novel, "The Good Earth." The "O" part, Jones said, means "profound," and the "lan" means "wildflower." Her mother, ever an original, chose to celebrate the wildflower part with a capital L.

"My mother was never one to accept the rules of the day, and I think that helps a person to think for herself," Jones continues. "Although, at the time, I would much rather have just had shoes like everybody else." Jones--who composed the music for the production, describes the encounter between the woman and the lions as "something that everybody experiences in a time of crisis--the lid comes off and you see the whole can of worms, and you get to know and love each worm," Jones says. "You can't deny it, you can't help but accept it.

"We've always wanted to be funny and deep and to look at the unseen things," Jones says of the mission of Overtone Industries, a company that has existed in various forms for 20 years. When it comes to describing "Sweater," she prefers myth over fairy tale because "myth reverberates with the huge forces at work inside--it's an enlargement of the demons that move around inside an individual, or a culture."


Jones' roots go deep into the experimental theater communities of New York and San Francisco in the '60s and '70s. She is the former wife of playwright Sam Shepard, with whom she has a 30-year-old son, Jesse, a writer, sculptor and carpenter who also serves as caretaker of 60 acres of land in Northern California wine country.

She doesn't talk about her marriage to Shepard much--not because of bad blood, but because it ended almost 20 years ago. "My ego just gets so rubbed the wrong way and slurred by other people's projections," she says. Besides, there's a new man in her life, Halldor Enard, who has a dual career (photographer and handyman) and a dual nationality (French and Icelandic). "Standing next to him is like being at the spa," Jones says appreciatively. Jones can also boast a career in Hollywood, including cameo roles in "The Truman Show," "Mars Attacks!," "Edward Scissorhands," "Natural Born Killers" and the upcoming Lucas Reiner-directed film "Gold Cup," as well as regular and guest appearances on series TV.

In "Scissorhands," Jones' character, Esmeralda, "the religious fanatic organ-playing neighbor," is required to play a hymn on the organ. Jones could not play the hymn they gave her, so she composed her own. That composition earned her membership in BMI, a performance rights organization.

She described the roles usually offered her as "the weird waitress from Mars." "You'll often find me in the food service industry," she observes. "I think I get cast as those characters because they are bring-your-own, whatever. I don't fit easily into some of the categories Hollywood provides."

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