Thursday, December 18, 2014

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One On 1: Playwright/Performer Sarah Jones

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NY1's Budd Mishkin continues his series, "One On 1," with a profile of a woman known for her characters - all of them - Sarah Jones.

Go to interview Sarah Jones and you're never sure who might show up.

“I have people say, ÎOh, when you do that older Jewish grandmother I totally recognized her. How did you know?” she says.

You might even meet a character from India, who says, “Wherever you go in New York City, when you step outside, you meet someone there to pick up your paper or get a taxi.”

Or you might even come in contact with a French woman.

“One of the characters is a French woman,” says Jones. “She is very distinctive. You cannot miss her. She's wearing the big scarf and everything."

Welcome to the world of Sarah Jones and her characters, 14 of them in her show "Bridge and Tunnel,” which debuted downtown in 2004 and is now packing them in on Broadway.

“It's a dream,” she says. “I'm a New Yorker, and now I get to actually share that wonderful stretch of New York with incredible, talented people and see audiences every night. It's a dream. Don't wake me up though."

Jones lives down in the Village with her husband Steve Colman, who is also the show's assistant director. She says she doesn't do accents, but rather works on making full human beings, and that work to create a character often happens in the apartment.

“I will talk like that even though I am at home,” she says. “I will still start to change and I will say, ÎSteve, we are out of milk,’ [or] whatever it is. Even if it is mundane it becomes a part of this. I am so obsessive with it. You don't want to be around me while I'm in the process of developing, I will drive you crazy.”

Jones' career has received some help from another woman who knows something about creating characters. Meryl Streep was an early supporter of Jones' work and produced “Bridge and Tunnel” Off-Broadway.

“You can't quantify that kind of gift as an artist to have someone like her support you and say to her friends, literally, when you have friends like Robert De Niro, you can say, ÎRobert, go and see Sarah,’" she says.

Sarah Jones' work revolves around words. Growing up as the daughter of two doctors, she grew accustomed to hearing very specific words.

“We didn't have cutesy terms for parts of the body. When you grow up with doctors as parents, the conversation at the dinner table can get pretty disgusting,” she says. “’Mommy, my uvula hurts.’ Who says ÎMommy, my uvula hurts?’”

Her parents academic and professional travels took her to Baltimore and Boston, and then to New York, where she attended the United Nations International School.

“From the time I was 11-years-old I had all these voices around me,” she says. “It was typical for me to have a friend walk into the room and start talking in a completely different accent, and I would be listening of course and absorbing that."

And she got good at it. Good enough to occasionally call the nurse to get a friend out of gym.

“I would get to know the parents, of course, because we were a very tight knit school,” she says. “Once I knew who it was I could simply ring down to nurse and say [in a British accent], ÎShe's got a terrible cold. I wouldn't want her to get other students sick. That would be dreadful. Would you make sure, please, that she is sent home straight away?’”

Jones was going to use her way with words to become a lawyer. But while attending Bryn Mawr, her parents divorced and she came back home without finishing school.

She loved hip-hop, but had to confront one problem while on the dance floor: Lyrics she considered sexist and misogynistic.

“I remember being on a dance floor and hearing these lyrics and thinking, ÎWait a minute, why am I singing along to somebody calling me all of these names?’” she says. “I literally might as well be internalizing these things and accepting them as truth."

That anger inspired her to participate in performance poetry and poetry slams, and eventually the theater.

She was also inspired by a family tragedy. Her sister Naomi died in 1997 of a drug overdose.

“When something like that, the worst thing that you can every imagine happens, you just sort of think, well, that clichŽ about life being too short takes on a whole another resonance for you,” she says. “You begin to live your life in these other larger ways, almost in tribute to that person. My sister deserves more than for me to be a shrinking violet. So I almost feel like I get to live and speak for what she might have done and who she might have been.”

By the late 90's, the praise and the awards started pouring in, and her career got a boost from several grants.

But in 2001 she found herself at odds with the FCC. To combat the problem of sexist and misogynistic lyrics, Jones wrote a poem called "Your Revolution," with the opening line, "Your revolution will not happen between these thighs."

The FCC ruled the poem was indecent, so Jones sued.

“The only other artist hit with the same censorship was Eminem. So here I am - strange bedfellows, me and Eminem,” she says. “Me, I'm raging against everything from misogyny to homophobia, and here's him on the other side, and we're both being censored. And his censorship was reversed and mine was not. Because of the Internet revolution, I would be in India doing a performance and someone would come up to me and say, ÎAren't you the pornographic rapper that I heard about?’ I don't want that happening to me. It was really just my duty as a responsible citizen to demand accountability from the FCC."

In 2003 the FCC reversed itself and ruled that the song was not indecent.

Jones has always worn her politics on her sleeve.

"Many times I did tell myself I'd promise that one day I would not live in a country run by a dictator, backed by military and controlled by religious fundamentalists,” she says in one of her works. “And then I realized the problem is I love America too much to leave, you know, so what am I going to do?”

She performed at the anti-war rally in New York before the Iraq war began in 2003. And the international women's rights group Equality Now commissioned her to write the show "Women Can't Wait," which she performed at a special session of the UN General Assembly.

Rare is the artist who's performed for delegates at the UN, and kids at Rikers Island.

“Of course the first time it was like, ÎOK, let me think about this for a second,’” she says. “First of all, I don't want them to mistake me for one of the kids - I look just like a lot of them. And then on top of that, I just thought, ÎThere but for the grace of God go I.’"

So how does she compare playing the UN versus playing Rikers Island?

"Well, everybody in both places is a human being, and if you look, a lot of them look the same,” she says.

Jones has traveled and performed all over the world, and now on Broadway, displaying two of her passions: the opportunity to say something meaningful, and the ability to do it in so many of the voices that make up New York.

"There are some times when you can really hit people over the heads and get on their nerves. It's not a rally,” she says. “I don't want people thinking they're coming to the theater, I'm not proselytizing. I really just want people to have a good time and recognize their neighbors, their friends, themselves, maybe, in a way you don't usually see on a Broadway stage.”

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