Sarah Jones in Bridge & Tunnel
(Photo © Paul Kolnik)
Sarah Jones in Bridge & Tunnel
(Photo © Paul Kolnik)
Any doubts that I may have had about Sarah Jones's ability to play a Broadway theater were quickly dispelled by her performance of Bridge & Tunnel at the Helen Hayes; this solo show is just as vibrant and exciting as it was downtown at The Culture Project, where it ran in 2004. Even more important, Jones is able to maintain a sense of intimacy that's hard to achieve in a Broadway-size house, even a small one such as the Hayes.

Bridge & Tunnel is set at the fifth annual I.A.M.A.P.O.E.T.T.O.O. poetry reading, a showcase for the poetry and life stories of immigrants. The event is hosted by a character named Mohammed Ali, originally from Pakistan and now working in New York as an accountant. The Broadway production boasts a gorgeous new set by David Korins, who has created a realistic yet funky environment that looks simultaneously hip and run-down. Christopher Cronin's sound design and Howell Binkley's lighting also help set the mood; the string of Christmas lights that runs across the upper part of the set is a particularly nice touch.

But that's pretty much it in terms of major changes from downtown. Script-wise, the show is about the same, with the exception of a few updated jokes (there's a very funny one about Condoleeza Rice and George W. Bush) and the youthening of a student from the Bronx named Yajaira, now an 11-year-old who delivers an endearing poem called "I Don't Want to Grow Up." Below is an edited version of my review of the original production, which is just as applicable to the new one.

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Sarah Jones is a charismatic and versatile performer who is able to play a wide range of characters of various ages, ethnicities, and genders. She moves from role to role with deceptive ease. One of her most effective moments occurs early in the show as she morphs from Mohammed into Mrs. Lorraine Levine, a Jewish senior with a stooped back and trembling hands. Jones has a good ear for the speech rhythms and cadences of the individuals she portrays, and she makes each character distinctly different.

Although the writer-performer often relies on ethnic-specific accents, she knows that many immigrants and children of immigrants lose their accents over time or acquire new ones that aren't derived from their country of origin. A case in point is her depiction of Bao Viet-Dinh, a Vietnamese American slam poet champion who does not speak with any kind of an Asian accent. However, Jones is also savvy enough to show how race and ethnicity affect the way that people are perceived. When Mohammed introduces Gladys Bailey from Jamaica, he rather insensitively asks, "Are you a fan of Bob Marley?" Although many of Jones's immigrant poets fight against the stereotypes that affect them, they also apply stereotypes to each other.

All of the characters in Bridge & Tunnel are interesting, but a few of them really stand out. Foremost among these is Juan José Martinez, a wheelchair-bound union organizer who tells the tale of his wife's failed attempt to join him in the United States. Jones effectively underplays the character's emotions as Juan attempts to hold back tears. She delivers another powerful monologue as Mrs. Ling, who speaks of her lesbian daughter's struggle for the same kind of immigration rights that marriage grants to heterosexuals. On hearing that her daughter is in love with a nice Chinese girl, Mrs. L. comments drolly, "These are the words I'm waiting to hear, but from my son."

Jones's own background as a slam poet comes into play in the works of several of her characters; these include Bao Viet-Dinh, who delivers the sort of identity politics poem that one might hear at the Nuyorican Poets Café, the Bowery Poetry Club, or on Russell Simmons' DEF Poetry Jam. The final character introduced in Bridge & Tunnel, Rose Aimee Sylvince, also scores with a diatribe against the white real estate agent whose racism inspired her poem "God Bless America... but not because of you." A paean to the diversity of immigrants to the United States, the piece combines wit and anger with a poetic flair.

The concept of structuring the show as a poetry reading works well, and the individual monologues flow together in a seamless manner. Not all of the characters actually read poems; some tell stories or simply talk about themselves. In a moving speech late in the proceedings, Mohammed gives background information on the annual poetry event that he hosts; he notes how difficult it was to organize following the events of September 11, 2001, given the emotional turmoil of the city and the fact that certain dark-skinned immigrants were viewed suspiciously by other New York City residents.

Director Tony Taccone keeps Jones moving briskly from character to character. She is aided by the addition or subtraction of simple costume pieces such as a jacket or a pair of glasses, and the lighting and sound design helps to smooth the transitions. But Bridge & Tunnel ultimately depends upon the talents of its star, who brings all of her creations to vivid life.