Sarah Jones in bridge and tunnel(Photo © Brian Michael Thomas)
Sarah Jones in bridge and tunnel
(Photo © Brian Michael Thomas)
Sarah Jones made a huge impression on Meryl Streep, and it's not difficult to see why. Jones is a charismatic and versatile performer who is able to play a wide range of characters of various ages, ethnicities, and genders. After seeing her perform, Streep became an advocate of her work and is now the producer of Jones's dynamic new solo show, bridge & tunnel, presented in association with The Culture Project. In it, Jones plays 14 characters participating in a poetry reading; a character named Mohammed Ali, originally from Pakistan and now working in New York as an accountant, hosts the event, which showcases the poetry and life stories of fellow immigrants.

Jones transitions from role to role with deceptive ease. One of her most effective transformations 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 rhythms and cadences of the individuals she portrays, making each one 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 different characters are perceived. As 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 various stereotypes to each other.

All of Jones's characters are interesting, but there are a few who really stand out. Foremost among these is Juan José Martinez, a wheelchair-bound union organizer who shares the tale of his wife's failed attempt to join him in the United States. Jones effectively underplays the emotion in the monologue as the audience witnesses the character's attempt to hold back his own tears. She delivers another powerful monologue as Mrs. Ling, who tells the story 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. Ling 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 an identity politics poem similar to those you might hear at the Nuyorican Poets Café, the Bowery Poetry Club, or on Russell Simmons' DEF Poetry Jam. The final character that Jones introduces, Rose Aimee Sylvince, also scores with a diatribe against a white real estate agent whose racism inspired her poem, "God Bless America... but not because of you." A paean to the diversity of immigrants within 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 of the various characters flow together in a seamless manner. Not all of them actually read poems; some tell stories or simply talk about themselves. In a moving speech late in the show, Mohammed gives background information on the poetry event that he hosts, which is now in its fourth annual installment. He notes how difficult it was to organize the event following the events of September 11, 2001, given the emotional turmoil of the city and the suspicions placed upon certain darker skinned immigrants.

The set design for bridge & tunnel is fairly basic, consisting of a raised platform with a single standing microphone. The back walls of the theater feature graffiti-inspired designs courtesy of scenic painter Blake Lethem. Director Tony Taccone keeps Jones moving briskly from character to character; the changes are accomplished through the addition or subtraction of simple costume pieces such as a jacket or a pair of glasses. Alexander V. Nichols's lighting and Chris Meade and DJ Rekha's sound design also help to smoothen the transitions. But in the end, the show depends upon its star, who brings all of her creations to vivid life.