Shamari Reid attempts to gain access to all that lies beneath the mystique of creator and renaissance woman, Jonovia Chase.
“I remember in like 3rd grade I got in trouble because I took all the canned goods from our house to school to submit to the Thanksgiving food drive. And I didn’t do it all at once. I would take like a few canned goods at a time until my mother realized that I had taken almost all of them.” – Jonovia
We agreed to do the interview via Zoom pretty late at night because it was the only time that worked for her busy schedule. Jonovia joined the Zoom call a few minutes late because her previous meeting had run over time. Yet, she still chose to show up. And give. Donning a Black silk bonnet with pink and white writing on it created by #StyledByCharmaine, and a facial expression that screamed “I’m off the bone”, she apologized for joining late; And as a thunderstorm-about-to-turn tornado made itself comfortable outside my window I started the interview at complete peace. A peace that has become all too familiar anytime I share space with Jonovia. Even though we and our friendship exist in a world that is in a constant state of chaos, violence, and unraveling, being with her is like breathing while relaxing in a bed of chrysanthemums, tulips and other yellowy, ginger saffron-colored flowers. Or maybe it’s like being swept away by the aroma of a hundred Yankee cotton-scented candles while Jonovia’s R&B junkie Spotify playlist fills the background. Or maybe it’s both. Or more.
A true woman of the world, in her email signature and on her social media accounts Jonovia describes herself as a renaissance woman, “a chameleon who is capable of being and doing a multitude of things.” But when you gaze beyond her Lupin-esque ability to transform and adapt, who is this woman? In our interview I attempted to gain access to all that lies beneath her mystique, which is quite difficult because Jonovia has been known to give only but so much access just like the spies from her favorite action films. And these boundaries could seem jarring to some, especially in a world in which many believe that we should always be able to access anyone we want and at any time. Not with Jonovia. She is in complete control of how much she lets people in, and access to her is limited. During our nearly hour long conversation, I arrived at the realization that at her core Jonovia, among many other things, might be the 3rd grade girl who gave up all her family’s canned goods to other people for the school food drive. And though she shares that story as one that happened when she was a kitten, I believe that little altruistic girl from Baltimore is still present. Someplace beyond the surface, Jonovia is still someone who will make sure others have shoes on their feet as she wades barefoot through a world littered with anti-Black, transphobic, misogynistic, and elitist landmines. And in true Jonovia fashion, she might not ever say much about her shoeless journey. It is for this reason, and others, that her service and continued sacrifice might at times go unnoticed. But we notice. We notice the creativity, the passion, the humility, the love, and the “canned goods”.
On her creativity
Though she has been a part of many projects, woven throughout her work is love and respect for creative expression. Whether we reflect on her collaborations with DDPRO studios or the beautiful folks at T4Short, her artistry is present. Artistry and creative expression that she mentions began with dance. As a youth in East Baltimore, she shares with us how people in her neighborhood would go and get her from her home on Calvert and Lanvale street for dance battles against others in various nearby blocks.
In her words: “As a kid, people would come get me from my house [and my block] to go to other blocks to have dance battles with other people. You know, it would really give ‘go get Jonovia!’ I’ve always been the girl that is the one to break it up, even at like 7 and 8 years old.”
I asked Jonovia about how dance as an artistic form of expression came to be an important feature of her life and she responded:
I never wanted to be home. I was always looking for an escape to go out and engage in creative activities, and at a young age I got very involved in dance. And everyone knew I danced. My family knew I danced. I remember times when my cousins and I would make up little dance routines to perform for my aunts and stuff. They lived in the country and there was nothing else to do. So we could either go outside and play, or stay in and be creative. Even though they [my family] would try to get me to dance and show off for others, I could never fully express myself at home as I could outside of home. I had very feminine ways that not only came out in my dance but in my walk and talk too, and sometimes I would get chastised for that. But I danced anyways, I’m a rebel.
Vogue Evolution performance at the 24th Annual GLAAD Awards. Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for GLAAD
And it wasn’t just dance. Jonovia reflected on her kitten days made up of her experiences in the marching band, and various school assignments and even plays which allowed her to be creative. However, dance was always there. Once she relocated to NYC and enrolled at Washington Irving High School, she began to take dance even more seriously and became a member of the school’s dance group thanks to a push from her beloved teacher, Omayra Lacourt. While In NYC she met Suzanne Lamberg, an NYC legend, who saw her talent and encouraged her to join Young Dance Makers, a dance group that did not play when it came to their art. She recalls rehearsing with the group in St. Nicholas Park until 2am while still in high school. But the hard work paid off as Jonovia and her dance group would find themselves performing in spaces like Park West High School, The Toya Show, and 106 & Park where she was able to see what goes into production behind the scenes on a show to make spaces seem bigger than they were, the importance of staying within lines so you’re not off camera or out the shot, and all the minor details required to bring a vision to life. Moving forward, she and her dance group would appear on the docu-style reality series MTV: True Life.
How did you move from dancing to some of the things you do now around creating, producing, and telling stories?
Jonovia: Well, I was in a dance company called Young Dance Makers, and that’s a choreographer’s company in NYC. It’s a high school program that you audition to get into. And you have to choreograph within the company. And you also learn other people’s pieces; And then we take all the dances on tour and they set you up with a featured company. The summer I did it we had Alvin Ailey as the featured company so we got to learn Escapades as our company piece. And we learned a lot from the folks at Ailey. We got to learn some technique, and had core training every morning that summer leading up to the performance. Aside from learning from so many involved with the dance company and Ailey, I got the chance to choreograph and create. I created an all men’s piece about 5 men being super codependent on each other. And it actually got performed outside the company. I got to create the costumes and then set it outside the company at the 92nd street YMCA, and redesign it. And that’s where I really began learning how to tell stories through production, and through dancing.
“But loving on my community, and especially my sisters, is my deepest passion.”
On her passion and love
There was a light in Jonovia when she talked about her journey from and through dance toward producing and creating. I felt that there was so much she wanted to share, so she spoke really quickly almost as if she wanted to get out all the stories and words before they were replaced in her mind with other memories longing to be shared. However, there was a shift when I asked Jonovia how she might describe the current work she does. She got silent. After a short pause that most certainly felt like it lasted years she hesitantly responded, “I don’t know, I don’t know my work.” And in that moment I found myself face-to-face (via Zoom) with the Jonovia whose humility can sometimes appear to manifest as shyness or reclusiveness.
Nonetheless, I’ve known Jonovia long enough to understand that depicting her as shy would be dangerously inaccurate. There was something more there. While I have witnessed Jonovia tear it on the stage and runway on several occasions across the years as a performer with a commanding presence, her duality peeks from behind her eyes when she is invited to take up space in conversations that center her talents as a creative and producer. In sharp contrast though, she waxes poetic when lifting up other creators and producers whom she loves, admires, and respects. And in those conversations she is quick to position herself as part of the supporting cast, or the background among a cadre of other helpers. Forever the helper which resonates with something she shared briefly at the top of our interview, “I’ve always been the helper. As a kid I didn’t mind taking down my sister’s hair. I didn’t mind getting all of us ready for school, I had a lot of responsibility as a child.”
Jonovia’s story, unfortunately, is not unique. We live in a world in which we require Black women to be everything to everyone except for themselves. We look to the women in our communities to give without expecting, sacrifice themselves, play the background, help everyone else succeed, and not complain. Black women are natural renaissance women who play every part in our lives but are often rewarded with invisibility and more work which leads to some of them finding comfort in playing supporting roles even though they are axes on which the world spins. I decided not to pressure Jonovia too much about defining her work nor push her to present herself as the creator/producer. Instead, I opted to ask questions around her motivation and inspiration. In recognizing that many of her projects are love letters to and for her community, I asked more about the connection between her work and community.
Jonovia: The fact that there is a deep connection between my work and community is intentional. I don’t understand it. Some of it feels like..bigger than you. It’s always bigger than me. But loving on my community and especially my sisters is my deepest passion. I’m willing to go the extra mile to make sure my sisters are taken care of because I don’t mind being uncomfortable so they don’t have to. I even shoulder particular experiences as a shield from them having to shoulder them or take them on.
And she continued: And that is why so many of my projects are always centered in community and come from a space of disparity and not having enough. But what would it be like if we could have the best of the best? Because we deserve it. And in my work I wanna include as many people as possible. I wanna involve people, community because the community has done a lot for me. I want to make sure there’s reciprocity. I don’t wanna just be in community, I wanna give too.
What is the project you’re most proud of?
Jonovia: There’s a few things. I don’t know where to begin. I’m going to say because it’s on my mind, What’s Your Fantasy. What’s Your Fantasy was a dream come true to be able to have the level of budget and level of production value to be provided to the people it was for. No experience has topped how fulfilled we felt in that moment.
Back into What’s Your Fantasy for folks who may not know.
Jonovia: What’s Your Fantasy is a concept or project created by Gia Love, my big sister, and part of it was to catapult Gia into her modeling journey. And she wanted to bring on two other beautiful women: Fatima Jamal and Trannilicious. Fatima actually wound up taking on a dual role as a director as well. She’s a brilliant mastermind when it comes to beauty, fashion, Black trans liberation and advocacy. And the project was about full figured Black trans women stepping into their power and fighting back against a world that is completely anti them and in denial of their existence, of all Black trans women’s existence. It was a 3 tier project: we did a photoshoot, we did a video shoot, and a campaign call to action for folks with digitized video content. It was super amazing. The fashion. Beauty. Hair, make up! Just wow. So many beautiful people were involved. It was a family production. And having Black trans women be part of the design of the project was also vital because it was about bringing ourselves and talents to the forefront. And showcasing what we do, especially because what we do is so invisibilized, misunderstood, yet at the same time appropriated. It was about us confronting society and the world with our skills and who we are as people. I think that many people who were part of the project shared that vision.
Fatima Jamal, Gia Love, and Trannilicious for What’s Your Fantasy? Photographed by Alex Cruz