IN “Bridge & Tunnel,” Sarah Jones’ solo Broadway comedy, a Mrs. Lorraine Levine kicks off the poetry slam proceedings with a senior citizen jeremiad. Her hand fumbling with reading glasses, she prefaces the poem by recalling the anti-Semitism faced by her immigrant parents. “Thank God, times have changed,” she says, “It may not be perfect, but we live in the best country in the world. Here in America we have freedom to say what we want, be what we want, to decide what happens in our country. We even get to decide what happens in other people’s countries.”
The last line always gets a laugh. But Jones says she’s been taken aback by a response that comes earlier in the monologue. “Right after I say, ‘We live in the greatest country in the world,’ the audience bursts into applause, which feels very flag-waving. At first I thought, ‘I guess we got Texas in the house.’ But it’s naive to stereotype on the basis of geography. We have purple states, purple cities, purple suburbs, this groundswell of support for so-called traditional liberal values.”
The show, set in a Queens coffeehouse, and its multitalented writer and performer have ridden that groundswell to theatrical stardom. Three years ago, the 32-year-old Jones was largely known as a hip-hop poet and performance artist, most famous for having successfully faced down the FCC over an indecency ruling for her recording “Your Revolution,” a suggestively witty rant against rap misogyny.
That changed when Meryl Streep, impressed with Jones’ performance at an Equality Now benefit, lent her celebrity as producer of a 2004 off-Broadway version of “Bridge & Tunnel” at the Culture Project. The show garnered rave reviews and a seven-month sold-out run. After a hiatus, it reopened last month on Broadway to more acclaim, including Charles Isherwood’s New York Times review that praised the writing as “lively, compassionate and smart” and Jones as “an astonishing mimic” for 14 characters as diverse as a hyperkinetic black rapper, a disabled Mexican immigrant worker and a Chinese American mother trying to make sense of her daughter’s lesbian marriage. The show has since been extended at the Helen Hayes Theatre through July 9.
Not since 1985, when Mike Nichols presented Whoopi Goldberg, has a young performer made such an auspicious bow on Broadway. Jones follows in the tradition of such other socially charged artists as Lily Tomlin, Anna Deavere Smith and John Leguizamo. But “Bridge & Tunnel” arrives at a much more politically polarized time. And though the applause that greets the line “the best country in the world” reflects the complexity of the audience’s political feelings, it is also a marker of the safe environment Jones creates with her gently satiric characters, from the good-natured Pakistani emcee accountant facing a government inquiry, to the chiding Mrs. Levine, to the Russian emigre who satirized his government for spying on its own people -- a subject he suggests is suddenly relevant in his adoptive home.
“The piece was always invitational,” says Tony Taccone, the artistic director of the Berkeley Rep who staged the show. He acknowledges that although there has been the occasional walkout, “there is also a certain level of empathy that Sarah has regardless of where you stand on the political spectrum. One of her political strategies is to use comedy as an invitation to consider ideas that are controversial. It’s gentle in tone but very persuasive and at its heart lies its humanity.”
In an e-mail, Streep says Jones’ humanism is “a reflection of her inner self.” When she met Jones at the benefit for Equality Now, an organization that works to end discrimination and violence against women and girls around the world, she recognized “a woman who is confident and inspiring from the soul outward,” a writer and an actor who will “continue to invent people, situations, lives and souls, and inhabit them.”
For Jones, her uncanny mimicry -- she slides from character to character with dead-on accent, body language and the slightest costume change, be it a scarf, a cap or glasses -- is merely a means to an end. “More important than the transformations are the interactions that I hope the audience has with these characters when people are forced to see others as human beings and not just ‘the Other,’ these scary people they’ve been taught to hate, fear, be suspicious of,” she says. “I want to be a conduit for that exchange.”
SITTING in the casual office of the funky Greenwich Village apartment she shares with her fiance, Steve Colman, also a poet and performance artist who starred in “Def Poetry Jam” on Broadway, Jones emerges as quite distinct from the human cocktail of “Bridge & Tunnel.” She is unusually attractive, with sensuous eyes, a luxurious mane of black hair and a trim, coltish figure. She is passionately opinionated, bristling with utter contempt and alarm over the policies of the man “I graciously call ‘president.’ ”
What drives her crazy, she says, is what she sees as the government’s reneging on the American social contract, leaving some citizens, “those who work hard and hold down two jobs, to lose their pensions and have no health insurance and have to choose between medicine and food.”
Her sense of social justice was honed by stories she heard from her parents, an interracial couple who had bottles thrown at them as they cycled through the streets of Boston. As the eldest of three girls, she was subjected to the rigorous intellectual discipline meted out by them, both doctors.
“I love this country and its values, which are applicable to me as a woman from a diverse interracial heritage,” she says. “I had wonderful, motivated, well-compensated teachers who nurtured and encouraged me. I just worry that those who are now coming up won’t have the same opportunities to fulfill their potential.”
The family moved often -- Baltimore, Boston and Washington, D.C. -- before finally settling in Queens, where Jones’ parents finagled her into the United Nations International School. She acknowledges that her facility for mimicry came from observing fellow students from all over the world. But it also expanded her worldview. And years later, it would flower into compassion, tragically enhanced when her younger sister Naomi died of a heroin overdose at age 18. “It taught me that life is fragile,” says Jones, whose parents’ divorce came around the same time. “And that we are so vulnerable to destructive media messages, ones that can glorify a look, heroin chic.”
Jones thought she would become a lawyer “to clean up some of the mess I saw around me.” But clashing with her father, who insisted that she attend his alma mater, Johns Hopkins, she instead chose Bryn Mawr, “a campus full of strong-minded women.” She’d always written. In 1982, when she was 7, her poem attacking the Reagan administration’s attempt to categorize ketchup as a vegetable in school lunches brought her a prize in a citywide D.C. competition. And she’d acted, exploring her “Victorian” side by playing Lady Bracknell in a high school production of “The Importance of Being Earnest.” Now she began to develop her feminist poetry into performance art.
She quit college in her junior year, tempted by the hip-hop parties that she says were a glamorous alternative to the dorms and libraries of Bryn Mawr, and began appearing at poetry slams at such downtown venues as P.S. 122 and the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. Her poetry was far angrier and blunter than anything in “Bridge & Tunnel,” but the humor was there.
Colman was immediately impressed with that fusion when he first saw Jones at a 1997 poetry reading in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park performing her diatribe against rap, “Your Revolution” (“Your revolution will not be me tossing my weave / making believe I’m some caviar-eating ghetto mafia clown”). “There was this tall gorgeous woman who was criticizing misogyny in this witty, clever, skillfully written way,” he recalls, noting they were friends for three years before they became romantically involved.
Colman, who served as editor and assistant director on “Bridge & Tunnel,” says he is much angrier than Jones about the indignities they face as an interracial couple (cabs often fail to stop for her, so he has to play bait-and-switch to get her into one). “We both work hard to remain hopeful and optimistic so the anger doesn’t curdle into cynicism.”
Honing her work
JONES has attacked issues with greater bite in previous works. In “Women Can’t Wait,” she dealt, again through characters, with crises such as marital rape and genital mutilation. For “Surface Transit,” she created a homophobic Italian cop, a Southern white supremacist and a black rapper in a 12-step program “for rhyme addiction.”
Ironically, an elaboration of the latter show was what was supposed to debut two years ago at the Culture Project. But the night before rehearsals, director Taccone recalls, Jones came to him to say that the piece was simply not working. “Surface Transit” was deep-sixed in favor of characters she cannibalized from another work, “Waking the American Dream,” which she was also developing. The poetry slam setting and several new characters, including the all-important addition of the Muslim emcee, came later. Even after the acclaim of the Culture Project engagement, Jones, Colman and Taccone continued to tinker.
“At one point we attempted to go darker,” says Taccone, who further honed the show at Berkeley Rep last year before the Broadway bow.
“But the play wouldn’t bear it. Sarah pokes fun at her characters while loving them deeply, and you feel that.”
Not all critics love them as much, however. Clive Barnes, writing in the conservative New York Post, called the show “high-octane political correctness taken to flaming heights,” which brings up the notion that Jones may just be preaching to the choir. She says she can’t be bothered with sussing out who comes to her show and why. But she hopes “Bridge & Tunnel” will be challenging across the political spectrum.
“I think we all need to be challenged,” she says. “I think liberal guilt is utterly useless, a placeholder for incredibly weighty baggage that bogs you down. The best thing you can do is just accept accountability in your own life as much as you can.”
Holding citizenry to account in an age of “truthiness,” as comic Stephen Colbert puts it, is what Jones says is her ultimate goal. She laughs when it’s suggested that her future work may be more hard-hitting. “Oh, my, one project at a time, please.”
But, she adds, “I don’t want to ever compromise the truth, no matter how ugly the encounter. I think people can handle it, analyze it, and work it out for themselves, wherever they find themselves, politically, socially and economically. That’s what America is all about. It’s not all going to be sugarcoated, but I think it’s going to be an overwhelmingly pleasurable experience -- because connecting to another human being always is.”