LETTER FROM THE ARTISTIC DIRECTOR
SARAH JONES: BENEATH THE SURFACE
A LETTER FROM THE ARTISTIC DIRECTOR
Surface Transit is the third in a succession of plays this spring that have presented powerful, intelligent, fearless women whose radiant voices have soared on our stage.
From the fretful, despairing Else, to the monstrous Mrs. Venable and the bracing Catharine of Suddenly Last Summer, to the transformative voice of Sarah Jones who imbues all of her characters with a spirit of undying vitality, we might easily call this the Season of the Fearless Woman.
I first discovered Sarah Jones in a tiny theatre in New Yorks East Village performing for a rapturous crowd of young people. What impressed me was not only her virtuosity as a performer but the mind behind the material. She was not only in possession of a bold point of view but there was a palpable sense of urgency in her desire to capture her characters. The audience became so engaged that they too wanted to express their opinion; an urgency that filters through every aspect of American life and which is so readily recognizable to us all.
Identified by the media as a member of the hip hop generation, Ms. Jones reaches out to every age, every race, every class of person willing to take a journey with her through the prism of her poly-rhythmic world that attempts to capture both our naked contradictions and the fullness of our humanity.
Welcome and enjoy
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SARAH JONES: BENEATH THE SURFACE
everybodys just people underneath the surface.
This is what lies at the heart of Surface Transit by playwright/ poet/performer/activist Sarah Jones. Simple? Yes, but its the ironic peaceful simplicity of this statement by Ms. Lady, one of the eight characters Sarah Jones so skillfully and stunningly transforms into during the course of the play, that makes this piece so thought provoking when considering the wide swath of society she portrays that becomes connected by a web of hate. Her hope though is for society to move forward beyond hate and recognize the sociocultural linkages among us that transcend barriers of age, race, ethnicity, class or genderpromoting tolerance by making each of us see our own biases. There is a connection between each of us that transcends prejudices, says Jones. Diversity is not just some buzzword, its all our lives. The truth is, we are all connected in ways that we dont want to believe or admit.
Given her own complex racial and ethnic background, its easy to understand why issues of prejudice drive her work. The child of a European-Caribbean mother and an African American father, she grappled with issues of race, ethnicity and identity at a very young age, recalling in an interview the prejudices she faced as a child growing up biracial and multi-ethnic. Ironically, it was the prejudice she witnessed as a child that became the catalyst for her uncanny ability to imitate others. I would literally morph into whatever made sense, Jones says, whether I was on Long Island with the white relatives or in Baltimore with my dads family, sitting around cracking crabs open.
Those mimicry skills were further developed at the United Nations International School in New York. There she was introduced to students of all different nationalities and was able to hone her ability to do accents. If you wanted to get out of school, I would call from the pay phones to the nurse, says Jones in an interview. I could do a South African persons mother, a Jew, a German, an Indian. With a performance style that blends comedy, mimicry and documentary performance, it is clear why she has been compared to the likes of such artists as Tracy Ullman, Lilly Tomlin, Whoopi Goldberg, Richard Pryor, John Leguizamo, Marc Wolf and Anna Deavere Smith.
Born in Baltimore, Sarah Jones lived in different cities on the East Coast but was raised in Jamaica, Queens, one of the most ethnically diverse neighborhoods in New York. Although some of the characters in Surface Transit are inspired by members of her multi-ethnic family, most of the characters are composites of the many people she observed on her bus route (giving the show its title). People always ask me how I chose the characters, but I almost feel like they chose me because I know all of them in some way, says Jones. I used to ride the bus and there would be a Russian woman talking to her kids on one side of me, a Hasidic Jewish woman on the other side, a black woman on her way home from class, a couple homeboys in the backall riding the same bus, giving each other sidelong glances, because people dont necessarily want to share their space with people they view as different. It is through her ability to transform into such different characters seemingly effortlessly before our eyes that she is able to dramatize her theme, exposing gender and race as constructs rather than innate characteristics that create difference.
Everything about Sarah Jones seems to contribute to her remarkable ability to resist any form of labeling. Her work is rooted in hip-hop, but she enjoys throwing her audiences a curve ball by playing roles that would be normally unavailable to her because of race and gender. Although she is a brilliant actress, she received no formal theatre training, for acting or writing. Her initial foray into performance was by way of poetry. After dropping out of Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, she immersed herself in New Yorks exciting hip-hop scene. However, the misogyny of many of the lyrics made her question her place in that world, and her search for something more inclusive led her to Brooklyns vibrant poetry and spoken word performance community. Jones seemed to become a legend of spoken word performance almost overnight after she won the 1997 Grand Slam Poetry Championship sponsored by Manhattans Nuyorican Poets Café. The poems turned into monologues which were eventually shaped into Surface Transit under the guidance of playwright and director Gloria Feliciano. The play, which opened in New York in 1998 and performed to sold-out crowds, has been performed for numerous audiences at theatres, universities and cultural centers across the United States, Canada and Europe.
Her mission to use art as a medium for political activism continues in her other works. Women Cant Wait!, commissioned by the womens rights organization Equality Now, was performed at the United Nations International Conference on Womens Rights in June 2000 and locally at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in 2002. Using a scarf as her only prop, she transforms herself into eight different women from across the globe whose lives are profoundly affected by their countries misogynistic laws (including the United States). Her latest project, Waking the American Dream, commissioned by the National Immigration Forum and centered around the immigration experience in America, will be presented at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco this June. Most recently, the Federal Communications Commission indecency ruling that banned her poem-turned-song Your Revolution from radio airwaves was overturned, a triumphant victory for her as the first performing artist to successfully sue the FCC.
Berkeley Rep is delighted to bring Sarah Jones to our stage, continuing a tradition of providing a home for solo performers with a message of social tolerance, such as Danny Hoch and Anna Deavere Smith. Jones says that her hope is to live in a world where the strictures of gender and the barriers of race no longer exist. I want to be part of a larger community that looks back on things like profound racism and discrimination against women and it would have been changed measurably. We just have to get used to the fact that we can create enjoyable lives for each other.
Sarah Jones quotations excerpted from articles in: Paper Magazine, Crisis Magazine, Elle, Honey and The Fader. Articles can be accessed at http://www.sarahjonesonline.com.
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