BY JENNIFER BLOCK, PHOTOGRAPHS BY BARBARA ALPER
If you had told Sarah Jones
five years ago that her one-woman show Surface Transit
would attract a fan pool so diverse that Mira Sorvino,
Gil Scott-Heron, and Paul Simon would seek her out,
she would have scoffed. "I thought I was going to be
a lawyer," she admits. But now, the 26-year-old poet/actor/playwright
can't deny her rare success as a progressive artist
in our "predominantly white, patriarchal, corporate,
capitalist culture." Since the edgy and political Surface
Transit hit the stage in 1998, selling out left
and rightand winning the Best One-Person Show
at HBO's Aspen Comedy Arts Festivalthe press has
had only good things to say about Jones. So many doors
have opened that she is getting dizzy. She scored a
role in Spike Lee's latest film, Bamboozled,
and headlined at performance artist Danny Hoch's NYC
Hip-Hop Theatre Festival, but the project she found
most satisfying and inspiring to date is: Women Can't
Wait!, a play she wrote and performed for the international
women's rights group Equality Now. Part of a campaign
to end discriminatory laws against women, the experience
was, in Jones's words, "an artist's dream," a dream
no doubt enhanced by the hundreds of fans who wrapped
an entire city block one Friday night to see the shownot
the typical TGIF unwind.
In Surface Transit,
Jones weaves monologues of eight disparate, yet cosmically
linked, New Yorkers. Similarly, in Women Can't Wait!,
she portrays eight different women from around the world,
all living under laws that violate their human rights.
There's Praveen of India, who suffers years of marital
rape (not a punishable crime in India); Hala of Jordan,
whose sister's murder is sanctioned by a penal code
that exempts "honor killings"; Anna of Kenya, who would
rather have a sweet-sixteen than be a victim of female
genital mutilation. Jones's ability to slip from character
to character is an act of beautiful manipulation; the
accents are so impeccable, the personalities so sharply
drawn, that she needs only one propa scarf that
becomes a sash, a head wrap, a dollto transform
the letter of the law into palpable reality.
gets it," says Pamela Shifman, coexecutive director
of Equality Now. "We never would have gotten this much
publicity for our campaign without this performance.
The great thing about mixing art and activism is that
you get people who are there for the art and then become
activists, and you get activists who are there for the
activism and love the art. It's a real crossover."
The collaboration was so
powerful that even Jones crossed over: "My feminist
consciousness had begun developing early on, but in
terms of my commitment to struggling as a woman against
something that was always out there, I hadn't gotten
serious. I put it on my shelf: 'I'll read about that
someday.' 'I'll pay attention to that when I have time.'
Equality Now made me feel I have to do it now. That's
not about taking myself too seriously," she adds. "That's
about not taking myself too seriously. Saying,
I don't need to be Oprah Winfrey."
Jones may admit to feeling
more fulfilled while performing Women Can't Wait!,
but Surface Transit is just as provocative. Her
intent is to promote tolerance, to push people to see
their own biases. "I'm mainly inspired by the way we've
been 'hoodwinked and bamboozled,' as Malcolm X would
a society and, frankly, globallyby
the images out there, the stereotypes, the ridiculous
notions of who's who."
Her characters in Surface
Transit range from a Jewish grandmother to a black
rapper in a 12-step program for rhyme addiction to a
homophobic Italian cop suspended from active duty. Some
of them seem over the top, at the extremes of prejudice,
but Jones says that most people prefer not to see reality.
"I've had people take offense at some stuff I'm doing,
but it's more useful for me to put out there what I
know to be true even if it's what people don't want
to talk about."