James Jones of Overland Park carries a simple message: People who are deaf can do anything they want — except hear.
Jones, better known as J.J., is a deaf mime artist. For the past 12 years, has has taken vacation time from his full-time job as a deaf program manager at The Whole Person, which helps people with disabilities live independently, to perform eight to 10 shows a year at area schools.
He took his show in the road with his daughter, Juliana Jones, in September, for his first overseas performance. They made a trip to France for the World of Mime festival in Paris to commemorate the third anniversary of Marcel Marceau’s death. It was a way for him to spread the message of his art form internationally.
“Members of the Deaf community tend to view deafness as a difference in human experience rather than a disability,” Jones said in an email. “Deaf” is capitalized to refer to the cultural aspects surrounding individuals who are deaf.
Organizers of the Paris event invited Jones last spring, and visiting France was a lifetime dream for him. He performed in front of the Eiffel Tower and then traveled to Bordeaux, France, for “World Deaf Day,” an event that promoted deaf awareness.
In Bordeaux, Jones said there were people lined up out the door. The show was delayed for more than 40 minutes as organizers tried to accommodate the overflow audience.
Jones learned to mime at the age of 7 by watching “The Red Skelton Show,” the only TV program he followed because there was no closed captioning during that time. He loved Red Skelton and tried to imitate him. A few years later, an elementary-school teacher suggested he try out for the school’s talent show. He did, thus beginning his 34-year miming career at the age of 10.
He went on to attend the National Technical Institute for the Deaf in Rochester, N.Y., and perfected the art. His influences include Skelton and Marceau, both of whom he has met in person.
Juliana works behind the scenes with her dad as an assistant manager by contacting schools and building his website. On the bigger, multimedia shows, she operates the lights, sounds and PowerPoint presentations. As a little girl, she performed alongside her dad on stage and in mime.
“I’ll never forget when my girl put her first mime makeup on just before we were getting ready to go to church,” Jones said. “That gave me an idea for her to join me as a father-daughter mime show, ‘J.J. and Little J.J.’”
Grade school ended the duo, when Juliana became more self-conscious about wearing the white makeup. She felt awkward as friends teased her about having a mime for a father.
“The last thing I wanted was to be seen as a mime,” she said. “But, I don’t even think that way any more. I love the art. I love what my dad does. Maybe I will do it again with my dad again.”
She has witnessed misconceptions of miming firsthand and understands the sense of mystery that surrounds the art. But she also knows the power of her dad’s message.
“People think of the person with a white face as trapped in a box, but mime is so much more than that. It’s a beautiful art and a beautiful language. It’s being able to express things without words,” she said. “When he goes to schools for the deaf, he wants to be that inspiration.”