The Formalist, Feminist Work of Julia May Jonas

A playwright known for her five-play ALTAS cycle and a novelist acclaimed for her recent debut Vladimir, Julia May Jonas didn’t start out her artistic career as a writer. Her early exposure to art included dance and music; her mother was a church organist, and as Jonas recounts, “she and I would entertain ourselves for hours making up songs.” Her gradual shift to writing occurred during her undergraduate studies at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, where she initially enrolled as an actor before transferring into the Experimental Theatre Wing to pursue theater-making as a holistic practice. There, Jonas devised theater by combining choreographed dance with found text—until she began to use writing of her own. 

Since then, Jonas completed an MFA at Columbia University under playwright Charles Mee, started a theater company, taught at Skidmore College and NYU, and wrote twenty full-length plays. Many of her early plays were produced by Nellie Tinder, the theater company for which she was the founder and Artistic Director, and which strives “to create a unique, highly personal idiom of theater that is musical, spiritual, insightful, and guided by moral investigation.” The subjects of her plays with Nellie Tinder range from Evelyn, a movie star at a mental institution, to Emily Climbs, a woman whose botched life-extension procedure leads her to live in three bodies. One such play, Raise Your Voice in Medieval Counterpoint was proclaimed by Time Out New York to be “supremely balanced weirdness”—a descriptor that would arguably be apt for Jonas’s entire collection of work.  

Among her ambitious collection of writing is the five-play cycle, “All Long True American Stories” (ALTAS), which respond to five quintessential plays by male playwrights of the American canon: All My Sons by Arthur Miller, Long Day’s Journey into Night by Eugene O’Neill, True West by Sam Shepard, American Buffalo by David Mamet, and The Zoo Story by Edward Albee. “These are ‘male experience’ plays,” Julia explains. “And I was like, ‘Okay, what’s other people’s experience?” Her five responses—which include Problems Between Sisters, inspired by the brothers’ conflict in Shepard’s famous play—center female voices, stories, and bodies, while drawing upon the “male experience” of the original texts. As Jonas explains, “When I began [writing the cycle in 2015], American theater was so dominated by questions of masculinity… What’s more fascinating than masculinity? I’m just as obsessed with it as everyone else.” 

Part of Jonas’s fascination with the form of these canonical male plays is their purported universality. “Because that’s how those plays were presented to me: They’re about Good and Evil,” she’s reflected. “They’re about Big Humanitarian Themes… So the project for me is really finding a way to cast a woman in that role and still have it feel eternal, huge, big, human and not so specific to femininity that you don’t see the bigness there.” 

Outside of the ALTAS project, Jonas continues to cast female bodies in traditionally male roles, challenging the expectations of her audiences—and her own preconceived notions. Her “cathartic, devious and terrifically entertaining” (The New York Times) 2022 debut novel Vladimir centers a memorable narrator: a 58-year-old professor who roundly dismisses the reports of her husband’s alleged assaults on college students, and pursues her growing infatuation with a younger man. The novel grew from Jonas’s own reflections on aging and desire. “I’m the mother of two young children, which brings the process of aging more prominently to your attention (you start doing the math—when my daughter is this age, I’ll be this age, etc.). I realized I had this subconscious belief that as I grew older I would desire less, that my vanity would be cured, that I would achieve some sort of docile peace with my place in the world. And immediately I realized how wrong and maddening that idea was... So, I wanted to explore a character who feels a real sense of rage about those stereotypes and expectations, especially given everything she’s going through.” 

The success of Vladimir was followed shortly after by her play Your Own Personal Exegesis, a “terrifically clever coming-of-age comedy” (New York Theatre Guide) that premiered at LCT3 at Lincoln Center Theater. Drawing upon her own family history—her mother, a church organist; her father, a non-believer; her grandfather, a “lapsed minister who renounced his faith”—Jonas uses the form of a church service to tell the story of a youth pastor’s fall from grace.  

From Nellie Tinder to Vladimir to Your Own Personal Exegesis—and then to Problems Between Sisters—Jonas’s thematic interest in the masculine instincts, moral ambivalence, and transgression of female bodies, paired with a deep awareness of form, makes for a satisfyingly potent impact on her audience. “I want the audience to feel like they’re participating. And I want to disrupt them from traps that we can fall into, be they sentimentality or judgment, or any sort of clear assumptions about morality or people. I think a form can disrupt that and make us see it better than anything.” 

Malaika Fernandes