STORY 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.
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.
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.
"Sarah 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 sayas 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."She has an uncanny ability to step into someone else's shoes, such as a southern white supremacist. "I'll put myself inside their heads and say, 'I'm going to trace back. I'm a white supremacist who would do horrible things to Sarah Jones in an alley, but once upon a time I was a kid in a bassinet.' What happens to you as a child is so integrated into who you are for the rest of your life that you have to do painstaking work to keep learning, keep incorporating the reality that you know is yours, instead of what somebody else passed on to you. You have to relearn who you are as a human being."
This desire to "push" people stems from her own struggles with racial identity: her mother is European and Caribbean, and her father is African American. "The struggle that's going to take the longest is learning to be confident about my beauty outside of Western constructs of what's beautiful. I'm going to have hair that is this texture until the day I dieit's a little funny and fuzzy and soft, and I like it. I have to accept that lots of black men with hair just like this-because of the way racism is structured and intraracial racism works-won't find me attractive. That's a hard thing to deal with, but that's part of my reality, and it's up to me to process itand not my hair."
Her parents' divorce forced Jones to leave Bryn Mawr college and return to New York City. "I was aimless, wandering through my days, attending hip-hop parties. I found myself singing along to lyrics that I had no business singing. Me, the 'Bryn Martyr,' standing there going on about bitches and ho's being shit. I found myself doing that and said, 'Wait a minute.'"
That's when she began soaking it all in-talking to people on the street and frequenting poetry slams.
"I was writing in my journal the kind of where-am-I-who-am-I-where-on-earth-am-I-going-do-I-have-any-gas? poems-the really bad ones." But they weren't that bad. Jones turned those poems into rich and passionate verse embraced by the notoriously choosy New York poetry scene (she won the 1997 Nuyorican Grand Slam championship). The poems ultimately became Surface Transit.
Performing Women Can't Wait! has strengthened her connection to women's struggles around the world, yet Jones hesitates when asked if she calls herself a feminist. "That's a good question," she says. "I don't know if I do. I call myself a womanist. No, that's not true. I'm a feminist and a womanist."
She frowns at those who defend the push-up bra as empowering and was similarly offended when a club introduced her as New York's "spoken-word vixen." "We are a long way from a dominant feminist consciousness among women," she says. "You could more easily get women to pool their efforts under the banner of thinner thighs, at this moment in time, I believe, than you could under equal rights and equal opportunity.
"How will her experience with Equality Now affect her work? "I sure can't do anything that's not worthwhile anymore. If I do, it hurts. Because I know what it's like to do something that feels like it needs to be done. I almost feel like I've redefined art for myself."
There is a learning process that is painful for me sometimes," she continues. "I feel kinda like I'm at one level on the ladder looking up and trying to throw certain voices or certain experiences that are underrepresented into the fray, and I'm going to take a lot of flack for it, and that's alright. And if I decide that I'm done taking flack for it, or that I've changed my mind, or that I've evolved into a new place in my thinking, then I'll write something new or change the play. But right now, it is energizing. Even the painful stuff is energizing. It's all growth."
Jennifer Block is assistant editor at Ms.
Check out www.sarahjones.cc for dates and locations of Surface Transit, which will be on the road this fall in Atlanta, Los Angeles, and Miami, among other cities.