Poet and playwright
Born c. 1974, in Baltimore, MD; daughter of a physician. Education: Attended Bryn Mawr College, c. 1992-95.
Addresses: Agent—Creative Artists Agency, 9830 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, CA 90212-1825.
Debuted first solo performance piece, Surface Transit, in 1998 at the Nuyorican Poets Café, New York City, and later performed it at the American Place Theater; Women Can't Wait, commissioned by Equality NOW, debuted at the P.S. 122 in New York City, 2000, and was later performed at a United Nations conference; third one-woman show, Bridge & Tunnel, premiered at 45 Bleecker, 2004; signed with Creative Artists Agency, 2004; Bridge & Tunnel performed on Broadway, 2005.
Awards: Nuyorican Poets Cafe's Grand Slam Championship, 1997.
Spoken-word performance artist Sarah Jones and her one woman-show, Bridge & Tunnel, drew effusive reviews from theater critics in 2004 and helped land its author and star a Hollywood agent. Bridge & Tunnel is a 14-character study—with all parts inhabited by the energetic, versatile Jones—and deals with themes of intolerance and injustice in the melting-pot microcosm of the Greater New York area. Jones has said that writing about the immigrant experience has been relatively easy for her, because ultimately her source material is so rich. "It's such a poetic story," she told Vanity Fair writer Anne Fulenwider, "to pick up everything you can gather with you and against incredible odds manage to find your way to this country."
Jones was around 30 years old the year Bridge & Tunnel premiered in New York City. She was born in Baltimore, the city where her parents had first met as Johns Hopkins University students, but the family later settled in Boston and finally New York because of her father's work as a physician. She was from a biracial family, and sometimes felt uncomfortable as a child, especially when they lived in Roxbury, a predominantly African-American section of Boston. "From a very early age I had a profound sense of justice," she recalled in an interview with Mazi Gaillard for Harper's Bazaar. "I wanted to fix the fact that I felt uncomfortable when my mother and I went into certain places together."
When the Joneses settled in New York City, they did so in the richly multicultural borough of Queens. She was sent to the prestigious United Nations School, and it was there she discovered she had an unusual talent for mimicry. "There were all these kids, something like 150 nationalities, and everybody had these gorgeous accents, and I would listen all day," she recalled in an article by New York Times journalist Barbara Crossette. "The U.N. school opened up so much for me. It really broadened my horizons. As a kid I was suddenly aware of the plights of people not only in my own backyard but all over the place."
Jones landed at an equally prestigious women's college in Pennsylvania, Bryn Mawr, but left after her junior year. Returning to New York City, she drifted through a series of jobs for a time, and then her career as a writer began with a tragedy: in 1997, her younger sister, Naomi, died after her first intravenous heroin use experience. She was just 18 years old. Jones' grief came through in her writing, and that output found a forum in the downtown poetry-slam scene. She won the Nuyorican Poets Cafe's Grand Slam Championship that same year.
In 1998, Jones' first solo show, Surface Transit, had its premiere at the same venue. Its character study of eight compelling New Yorkers, created entirely in Jones' head and deftly characterized by her onstage, was such a success that it enjoyed a run at the American Place Theater. As with her subsequent work, Surface Transit deals with injustice and intolerance. One of the monologues features a rapper named Rasheed who discourses for ten minutes on contemporary urban slang. "The vast list of references he drops could be an encyclopedic dictionary of hip-hop," asserted New York Times theater reviewer D.J.R. Bruckner about Jones' talents onstage, "and the rhythm of his patter is so finely modulated that his ten-minute speech sounds like a grand aria of rap."
Surface Transit earned other high-profile reviews, and Jones was tagged as a rising new name in performance art. Spike Lee offered her a part in his next film, Bamboozled, but by the time it was released in 2000 most of her scenes had been excised. She also briefly joined an MTV sketch comedy series, The Lyricist Lounge Show, but was disappointed by the themes the spoken-word show was presenting. "I didn't realize that I didn't have the power to say to an executive that 'Puerto Rican woman pregnant with nine kids in the kitchen let's make rice and beans' jokes are not funny to me," she told New York Times writer Jason Zinoman about the experience.
Jones' next solo show was a work commissioned by Equality NOW, an international women's advocacy group. In Women Can't Wait, which debuted in 2000, she played eight different women who deliver monologues about injustice and oppression in their respective countries. Jones becomes each character with the help of a simple shawl, and they include an abused wife in India and a little girl facing mutilation per tribal custom in Kenya. But Jones' work also comes closer to home, showing how the justice system or unfair laws penalize women in more "modern" places: her New Yorker Bonita is a teen jailed for killing her abusive boyfriend, while another, Emeraude, is a French woman who disdains and disobeys a vintage law that prohibits women from working at night.
In 2004, Jones scored once again with Bridge & Tunnel, her solo show built around several immigrant characters making their way and settling down in the New York area. They run the gamut from a Jewish grandmother on Long Island to a Pakistani who runs a poetry slam night at a South Queens club. Reviews were once again near-unanimous in their praise of Jones and her talent when the show began at the 45 Bleecker theater space. Entertainment Weekly writer Karen Valby noted that her impressive repertoire of accents and seemingly facile physical transformations "would all be just a neat trick if Jones weren't such an intelligent writer and actress. But she's funny and empathetic, in complete control of the slightest gestures and tics and inflections."
In 2005, Bridge & Tunnel moved to Broadway and Jones was also in talks with the cable network Bravo. Her next work would deal with the immigrant experience again, but in a post-9/11 world, and she planned to call it Waking the American Dream. She asserted that she never feared running out of material for her shows. "It's easy to find good stories in New York," she told the New York Times's Zinoman. "Go downstairs and buy your newspaper, there's somebody to talk to . [Y]ou're just as likely to find someone from South Asia or West Africa as someone who was born here. And it always feels fresh because no one talks about it. These people are not on television."
American Theatre, September 2002, p. 40.
Entertainment Weekly, April 9, 2004, p. 94; December 17, 2004, p. 40.
Harper's Bazaar, October 2000, p. 260.
Mother Jones, July-August 2004, p. 82.
New York Times, June 7, 2000, p. E1; July 28, 2000, p. E3; July 12, 2001, p. B2; February 8, 2004, p. AR6; March 5, 2004, p. E2.
Vanity Fair, July 2004, p. 60.