Jo Lampert Takes On Joan Of Arc

Via NPR

New York artist Jo Lampert just landed her first major role: Joan in David Byrne's new rock opera based on Joan of Arc. With her androgynous appearance and bluesy voice, Lampert seems like a good fit.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Jo Lampert is leading a new rock opera based on Joan of Arc. It's written by David Byrne of Talking Heads. It is Jo Lampert's biggest role yet. And as NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports, she seems born to play the part.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: If Jo Lampert were an athlete, she'd be a star utility player. She sang backup with the group tUnE-yArDs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WATER FOUNTAIN")

TUNE-YARDS: (Singing) If you say Old Molly Hare, what you doing there? Nothing much to do when you're going nowhere. Woohaw (ph), woohaw.

BLAIR: She's a regular guest on other people's songs like her friend Ryan Amador's.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPECTRUM")

RYAN AMADOR: Jo, try it out.

JO LAMPERT: (Vocalizing) Yeah, yeah.

That was a lot, but.

(LAUGHTER)

BLAIR: And she's got her own YouTube channel where she posts homemade videos, like this one of her doing a Tom Waits cover.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

JO LAMPERT: (Singing) Well, I don't go to church on Sunday, don't get on my knees to pray.

BLAIR: Jo Lampert says she has always loved to sing. It was her dad's record collection that did it.

JO LAMPERT: He had CD book upon CD book upon record upon record and would introduce me to Joni Mitchell, introduce me to Bjork, introduce me to jazz.

BLAIR: Now as Joan of Arc, she's singing music by David Byrne.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "JOAN OF ARC: INTO THE FIRE")

JO LAMPERT: (As Joan of Arc, singing) Take my dress. And take my hair.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Sword and fire, be my prayer.

BLAIR: For almost the entire show, Jo Lampert is the only woman on stage with 11 men. She goes from long braids and a dress to a mohawk and armor.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "JOAN OF ARC: INTO THE FIRE")

JO LAMPERT: (As Joan of Arc, singing) The warrior is here. The old me is gone.

BLAIR: The choreography is militaristic. Joan's a victorious leader until the men turn on her. Then she's tortured and ultimately burned at the stake. At various points, she looks up to the sky and sings to God.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "JOAN OF ARC: INTO THE FIRE")

JO LAMPERT: (As Joan of Arc, singing) Tell me now, it's up to you. Lord, I feel so alone.

BLAIR: This is not an easy sell off-Broadway. As Joan of Arc, Lampert needs to convince secular New Yorkers to empathize with a zealot. Even composer David Byrne admits the character is tricky.

DAVID BYRNE: We celebrate her as a kind of liberator, as somebody who is unshakable in her beliefs. But she's a religious maniac who raised an army to kill people.

BLAIR: Director Alex Timbers says he and Byrne auditioned several different actors, but Jo Lampert was the only one who could pull it off.

ALEX TIMBERS: She's incredibly heartfelt. I mean, she's like a hot-blooded performer. But she's so emotionally true.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "JOAN OF ARC: INTO THE FIRE")

JO LAMPERT: (As Joan of Arc, singing) I can no longer be that girl. And now, this woman shape I now renounce. No man will touch me now, will touch me from now on. My body's my master's touch.

BLAIR: Jo Lampert is a striking presence - tall, lanky, short hair that's sometimes blue, sometimes shaved on one side. She describes herself as androgynous and admits she's gone through some painful moments because of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JO LAMPERT: I didn't know how to see my own body. I felt like left out of this whole realm of what it means to be a woman.

BLAIR: This is from a video interview Lampert did with a project called "What's Underneath" by the website StyleLikeU in which women talk about learning to accept their bodies. Lampert says people have mistaken her for being transgender or called her sir and that it took her years to realize she couldn't let those comments keep her down.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JO LAMPERT: You cannot protect yourself from what is going to come. And that's actually a really freeing realization.

BLAIR: Lampert says she does not relate to Joan of Arc's unwavering devotion to God. But she does have compassion for the woman who dressed like a man, marched into battle and died for her beliefs.

JO LAMPERT: She is just so brave and so committed to the idea of unity and strength and power and community because she finds purpose.

BLAIR: Jo Lampert is a self-identified queer secular Jew. Even though she's nothing like the French saint, Lampert says her character's sense of purpose and determination inspire her every day. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "JOAN OF ARC: INTO THE FIRE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Pray, God bless everyone.

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