Meet theater's one-woman UN
NEW YORK — Sarah Jones's neighbors wonder about the voices floating through the walls of her West Village apartment. Could a neurotic Jewish grandmother be living there with a Mexican union organizer? Not to mention the proud Russian man? And a soft-spoken Chinese mother? And the fiery young Australian who recites bitter "love poems"?
No need to call the landlord. Ms. Jones is simply rehearsing for her one-woman show, "Bridge & Tunnel," in which she flawlessly portrays 14 characters of widely differing ethnic and social backgrounds, drawing comparisons to accomplished monologuists Whoopi Goldberg, Anna Deveare Smith, and Lily Tomlin.
The strength of this native of Queens is in the accuracy of her impersonations - down to the faintest tremble of a hand - and the complexity of her characters, enhanced by only a couple of props: a head scarf or oversized glasses.
What is more striking, however, is Jones's commitment to her principles in an industry where other up-and-coming artists frequently seek out the shortest path to stardom, shedding layers of integrity along the way.
"I knew if I wanted to survive as the writer and performer I believed I could be, I would have to write my own scripts, invent my own characters, and be a kind of self-contained creative/marketing/producing engine by myself," Jones says in a phone interview the day after she won an Obie award, noting that she sidesteps the one-dimensional roles and offensive material that dot the "minefield" of the entertainment industry.
In 1998, after Jones's breakout show "Surface Transit" got rave reviews, she took an offer from MTV to join a sketch TV series, "The Lyricist Lounge Show." Unhappy with the program's subject matter, she left after one episode.
Her career - and characters - evolved independently, with support from admirers Gloria Steinem and Meryl Streep.
"Theater is an incredibly valuable tool, because it allows for people to imbue their work with meaning and provoke thought," she says. Jones looks at the people around her as "walking novels." "The stories are too numerous to ever be told, but I think it would be a crime to never hear any of them."
With talk of her monologues heading to Broadway, some of those narratives could soon get a wider audience. She is also working, with her fiancé and partner Steve Colman, on a sketch special for NBC's Bravo network. Meanwhile, "Bridge & Tunnel" has been extended to mid-August.
Diversity ("not the buzzword, but the true meaning of it in a social sense," Jones says) is a theme that inhabits her writings.
Her growing mosaic of poignant and comical portraits underlines the obvious differences - and hidden bonds - that define the American immigrant experience.
The blueprint for "Bridge & Tunnel" was a project she created for the National Immigration Forum, and some characters are relics from a show Jones wrote for Equality Now, a women's rights organization in New York.
Ms. Streep was so impressed by Jones that she produced "Bridge & Tunnel" - the first time the Oscar winner has ever taken on that role. "Her compassionate, tough, and hilarious take on what makes us different as human beings, and the commonality we can't deny, is unique in my experience," said Streep in a press release.
The setting of "Bridge & Tunnel" is a café in Queens during a weekly poetry slam. The participants (all played by Jones) range from an indignant Haitian woman, whose touching tirade is dedicated to the real-estate agent who denied her a home, to a fast-talking Dominican teacher who cheekily reminds the audience, "Us Latinos, we're about to be the majority - in, like, two weeks."
Her talents earned her the Nuyorican Poets Café Grand Slam Championship in 1997. Earlier that year, her 18-year-old sister overdosed on heroin, which Jones has said affected her profoundly. Law school nearly upstaged the theater as a venue to showcase her loud mouth and sense of justice, but downtown poetry slams drew her in.
She's fought at least one legal battle, though. In 2001, the Federal Commumications Commission hit a Portland, Ore., radio station with a $7,000 indecency fine for broadcasting her poem "Your Revolution," a parody of misogynistic hip-hop lyrics. The FCC retracted its fine in 2003.
Jones spent parts of her childhood in Boston and Washington, D.C., but it was during her commute from Queens to the United Nations International School in Manhattan during her teenage years when she found countless accents, nationalities, and backgrounds all around her - "a crash course in multiculturalism," she says.
Jones's hip-hop character, who hijacks the microphone during the poetry slam, points to the connective tissue that unites Americans, new and old. "Black people - we got imported. Y'all get deported. I know y'all can feel me on that. That's connection y'all feeling right there, aiight?"
Those underlying connections will make it easy to find a mass audience for her characters, Jones says. "From the e-mails I get, audiences are responding positively to portrayals that remind them of their friends, neighbors, coworkers, loved ones, even themselves," she says. "Since much of our country ... is experiencing the expansion of immigrant populations, I think the show could work anywhere."