Sarah Jones is one busy chic. Just 26, she has already won the Nuyorican Poet's Café 1997 Grand Slam Championship, won HBO's award for best one-person show, taught poetry at Riker's Island, worked with Paul Simon, Derek Walcott, and Gil Scott Heron, acted in Spike Lee's next film, started a book, and is currently planning her own TV show.
Not surprisingly, she answers the phone breathless, after rehearsing her one-woman show Surface Transit, which will headline the Hip Hop Theater Festival at P.S. 122. "I play eight different people from all over the world. I'm out of my mind."
Not true. Jones may be able to transform herself from the chain-smoking Jewish grandmother into an Italian cop into a head-shaking ghetto teenager on stage, but in person, she is eloquent and focused as she explains her politically driven, highly entertaining show.
TheaterMania: How did you get the idea for Surface Transit?
Sarah Jones: I used to ride the bus a lot, and I was often fascinated by the variety of people on this bus. There were Chinese, Jewish-Americans, black folks, Latinos. In this microcosm of the world, no one was communicating, but we were all occupying the same space. There would be moments of conflict or moments of sharing common ground. I thought there was a potential for a kind of conversation around that.
TM: Do you have a political agenda?
Jones: I was listening to Eminem this morning at the gym--boy was that surreal--and he's going "go shoot your teachers." I would probably be the opposite. I feel like there's not enough justice out there, and the politicians aren't doing anything, and most of us are either too jaded or too removed from the awful, gritty, very real stuff that has people by the throat. We're in a kind of a state of emergency that everyone is ignoring, particularly in the entertainment industry. It's not popular to go around talking about poverty and homelessness. I'm trying to sneak in my messages about racism, classism, gender politics.
TM: Where did these messages come from?
Jones: My parents. I wasn't allowed to watch Tarzan or Little Rascals. My mom with her white skin trying to take me to the Toys R Us where they sell black Barbie. That was a big deal and that's why they sent me to the United Nations School. They were invested in multiculturalism as a reality. We're all born into prejudices. You don't even realize you're internalizing it. I'm really interested in all of that. How we can look at it in a way that doesn't put us to sleep or make us want to slit out wrists. Can we laugh at it?
TM: How do audiences react to your show?
Jones: I've had people in my audiences who come up and say, I love what you're doing, God bless you. It's amazing. It's almost like a confessional sometimes. How does this black girl know what this Italian cop is thinking? I want to say: You know what? There's really not all that much difference between you and me and whomever you're speaking of.
TM: Where have you done the show?
Jones: At the end of 1998 I started the show here, at the Nuyorican Cafe. I jumped head first into the acting without ever having taken acting lessons. Whatever comes out comes out. I really get into these people. I really can see elements of my own prejudices in these characters.
TM: Where do the characters come from?
Jones: They're a hybrid of people I've met. The white supremicist is based on a documentary I saw, but also characters--and I mean characters--I met touring the country. There's one British woman character who changed a lot after my MTV experience.
TM: Who are your influences?
Jones: I was a big Tracey Ullman lunatic when she had her show on Fox. And then Whoopi Goldberg's show at Carnegie Hall just blew my socks off. Also Lily Tomlin and John Leguzamo. Then when I was doing my show at Nuyorican, everyone was saying, you must have seen Danny Hoch's show because this is just like him. And I was crushed because I had no idea who Danny Hoch was.
TM: Isn't he producing your show?
Jones: It all ends in a happy story.
TM: You've been frequently compared to Anna Deveare Smith.
Jones: With those I sort of went "oh my God" because I think of her as this amazing scholar. Her work is so much more about substance. It's very hi-brow, in a way that my work couldn't be.
TM: What is the Hip Hop Theater Festival?
Jones: This is the inaugural year, and when Danny Hoch and I were talking about, I decided to get down with it and headline it. I think new ground is being broken through the marriage of hip hop and theater, and it's only natural. Hip hop has made its way into every other aspect of the entertainment industry, from film to TV to everything else. Although my play is not only a hip-hop play, I am child of the hip-hop generation. Even my Jewish grandmother character makes references to Puff Daddy...but I wonder if people are going to show up at my show expecting me to breakdance.
TM: What should people expect?
Jones: Universes, from the Bronx. They're this troupe that incorporates all these wonderful hip hop elements and really take you through this theatrical experience. There's also a guy named Will Tower, who has this play in an almost August Wilsonian tradition--if I can coin that word--and because he is a child of the hip-hop generation, it's got that hip-hop flavor. It's called The Gathering. For the average theatergoer, it might be hard to wrap their mind around it, but for those who do come out, it will really be a refreshing alternative to the same old, same old.