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.