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).
Meanwhile, in May 2001, the FCC–beginning a rash of indecency citations under the new chairmanship of Michael Powell–slapped the Oregon nonprofit radio station KBOO with a $7,000 fine for broadcasting Jones’s “patently offensive” hip-hop poem “Your Revolution.” This poem, used in Surface Transit, is a feminist tribute to Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” that parodies gangsta rap’s degrading language about women. (Jones: “Your revolution will not happen between these thighs…. The real revolution ain’t about bootie size/The Versaces you buys/Or the Lexus you drives.”) Almost two years of legal struggle ensued, during which the poem was effectively banned from the same airwaves that played misogynistic LL Cool J and Notorious B.I.G. lyrics with impunity. In the end the commission rescinded its ruling rather than file an explanatory brief in federal appeals court.
American celebrity being what it is, the publicity of the indecency flap earned Jones entree to Hollywood. As she tells it, her courtship there was dominated by admirers who swore they understood her sensibility only to approach her with insultingly stereotypical roles. At a panel two years ago, she described these lucrative but degrading proposals, including a DeNiro vehicle where she was supposed to play “a high-class call girl with many voices,” and an offer of politically neutered sketch work on MTV’s “Lyricist Lounge”: “Anyone from Haiti or any area of the Caribbean is a voodoo princess. I got a lot of them, also all kinda rastas, drug dealers, drug dealers’ girlfriends…the pregnant wife who cooks rice, the crazy sister-in-law, but never was there an offer to just be any kind of a human being.” Spike Lee cast her in Bamboozled but cut all but a glimpse of her from the finished film. Recently, she sold a sketch-comedy pilot to Bravo, made entirely on her own terms.
Directed by Tony Taccone, Bridge & Tunnel is a thorough reworking of her piece Waking the American Dream, set at the fourth annual gathering of a group called “I.A.M.A.P.O.E.T.T.O.O.” (go to the show to find out what it stands for) at a hall in south Queens called Bridge & Tunnel Café. The host is a goofy but clever Pakistani named Mohammed Ali, whom Jones plays with a dead-on accent and a wonderfully stiff comportment, chopping the air with his fists when laughing at his own dumb jokes. Relentlessly cheerful, Mohammed began organizing immigrant poets on the Internet before gathering them in person, and his definition of poetry is very loose, including storytelling, dance, “anything you want to share.” Thus Jones concocts an uninhibited forum for her fourteen different characters, all hungry to assert selves and points of view they feel have been quashed, maligned or ignored.
Her shifts between characters are executed in seconds, with nothing more than a change of jacket or head covering. Gladys, a winningly sassy Jamaican whom Mohammed has to retrieve from the bathroom, struts onto the stage with a hand on her swayback hip, introduces herself as a “poet/performer/playwright/spoken-word artist/actress,” disses Colin Powell (father of Michael, the FCC chairman, coincidentally) and then performs an absurdly exaggerated dance about her arrival in New York in the middle of winter, shouting, “Cold, cold, cold, Lord, why so damn cold?” Juan José, a Mexican in a wheelchair who somberly jokes that “I just rolled in from California, and boy are my arms tired,” says his verse was born of disgust with the lurid depiction of his country in the Brad Pitt/Julia Roberts movie The Mexican. His poem tells of his wife’s harrowing journey to the United States inside the metal ceiling of a bus, after which she found Juan, a day laborer, near death from a construction accident caused by rickety scaffolding. Characters like these, whose eloquence is in their candor, even their clumsiness, alternate with others endowed with more obvious verbal grace.
One of the main joys of Bridge & Tunnel is the way Jones uses its frame shamelessly to show off her daunting poetic versatility. She plainly takes as much pleasure in composing sparkling poetry in wildly different voices as she does in mimicking the various accents. Here is Yajaira, a 15-year-old Dominican girl from the Bronx who wears a cheerleading jacket and keeps wiping her nose:
…daffodil is midnight sun
hazy hot and humid
heavy sixteen-year-old heart
she had six weeks’ worth of newborn diapers
in her squeaky shopping cart
it sounded like bed springs
sounded like the kinds of things
she encountered enroute
from point A to point B
the nondescript trip from
ghetto cradle to ghetto heaven
And here is Bao, a Vietnamese-American kid in a kung fu shirt who speaks without a foreign accent and with comic abruptness, in slam mode:
This is not a model
Who find freedom on TRL
This is not
The part where I get drunk and sing
Folk songs for my white Frat Brothers
Or win an Oscar
For Crouching Tailor Hidden Drycleaner…
This poem is a slur-proof shield
And an arsenal of anger to wield
Every time someone wants a medal from me cause
They’ve feng shui’d their pad
This poem is for the Vietnamese history chapter
My school never had
It’s been said that hip-hop culture is a bridge between worlds that normally regard one another with mutual suspicion, hostility and envy. Hip-hop’s astonishing commercial success will probably render that idea hollow in the near future. At the moment, though, it’s still possible to root for the crossover dreams of a kid like Bao, and to cheer on characters like Mrs. Ling, a prim Chinese woman who stands up to speak about her daughter’s lesbianism, and Rose Aimée, a bluff Haitian woman who fumes over a bigoted realtor. In Jones’s utopian cafe, the bigots are all laughable and the bridges and tunnels are all as sturdy and beloved as the Statue of Liberty. It’s a beautiful, inspiring vision that, depending on your point of view, is as fragile or as unyielding as the consummate mirror-artist at its center.