Solo theatrical performances are like ads. Everyone claims to hate them but nevertheless finds the good ones irresistible. A good ad acts like a tonic, making a new idea easy to swallow. But if we’re not sold on the appeal in thirty seconds, we turn it off. The undercurrent of solo shows tends to be advertising: has-been celebrities namedropping through tell-all monologues, aging wunderkinder trying to fire up stalled me-machines with shallow autobiographical monologues. It’s partly because we know how easily the genre is poisoned by egomania that we cherish those with the imagination and discipline to use the poison therapeutically, turning the form into an exquisite critique of ego itself.
There have never been many who could pull this off–maybe a dozen or two across the twentieth century, when the genre burgeoned. Anna Deavere Smith, Danny Hoch and Lily Tomlin are among the few living ones: virtuosic mimics and also penetrating social critics who use themselves as documentary cameras and editorializing mirrors. They negotiate the dicey line between mimicry and mockery partly by dint of fascination with details. It’s the details that distinguish this sort of talent from that of the ordinary standup or sketch comic. Such performers have an intimacy with and affection for the people they imitate that a mere jester doesn’t. We may laugh at their impersonations, but we recognize the critical instinct behind their acts of observation.
Add to this exclusive company a relative newcomer who has just returned to the New York scene after a Hollywood detour that could easily have destroyed her. Sarah Jones is a 29-year-old whose first big break was winning the 1997 Nuyorican Poets Café Grand Slam Championship. The solo show she developed at Nuyorican, Surface Transit, was in a class by itself at the PS 122 “Hip-Hop Theater Festival,” where it played in 2000, later moving to American Place Theater. In it, Jones–a tall, strong, slender, dark-skinned woman of mixed-race parentage–portrayed, among others, an elderly, narrow-minded Jewish busybody, a Russian-immigrant widow of an American soldier, a bigoted Italian-American male cop, an unemployed British actress and blazing young rappers of both sexes, all with meticulous precision and merciless humor.
At the time, most critics described Surface Transit‘s political content by explaining its stories; the characters were linked through thin and occasionally tenuous plot strands involving “issues” like xenophobia, sexual exploitation and homophobia. The truth is, though, as with all the best work of this kind, the emotional and political power really lay in the relationship of the teller to the tales. The more transformative and elastic a solo actor is, oddly enough, the more interesting his or her self becomes to the audience, since it is the amazing instrument of interpretation that prods our critical thinking about the various characters. Who is this person, one wonders, whose astonishing chameleonesque exertions enable us to congratulate ourselves on the marvelous flexibility of our imaginations?
Jones, as it happens, has fought several public battles over the past few years that are worth describing in brief because they inform her new solo piece, Bridge & Tunnel, recently opened at 45 Bleecker Street Theater with Meryl Streep as a co-producer. In the wake of Surface Transit Jones accepted two commissions: one from Gloria Steinem, Equality Now and the Ford Foundation to create a piece focusing on the various laws oppressing women around the world (Women Can’t Wait, performed at the United Nations International Conference on Women’s Rights in the summer of 2000); the other from the National Immigration Forum for a work about immigrants (Waking the American Dream, performed in Washington and then removed from Jones’s performance schedule after September 11).