Jones, Sarah 1974–
Sarah Jones 1974–
Sarah Jones is a poet, playwright, actor, and spoken word performer. After winning the 1997 Grand Slam Championship in New York, Jones created several critically acclaimed one-woman shows. She has acted in several venues; on the small screen appearing on the PBS award winning series, City Life, on the large screen as part of the cast in Spike Lee’s film, Bamboozled, and on the stage, including a role in an off-Broadway production of the Vagina Monologues. Jones has performed her work at the Apollo Theater, Lincoln Center, Caroline’s, the 92nd Street Y, and on Def Poetry Jam. Not surprisingly, she has been on the covers of Ms. Magazine and Utne Reader. At one time Jones found herself caught in a Kafka-esque situation when the FCC labeled one of her pieces indecent. She fought back, defending her right to free speech—an action that actually helped Sarah Jones into the spotlight.
When an actor can completely assume the character that he or she portrays, it is safe to say that the actor strongly identifies with that particular character. Jones, who obviously has the uncanny ability to literally “turn on” the character she is portraying, dealt with considerable identity issues while growing up. Jones was born on November 29, 1974, in Baltimore, Maryland, but she wouldn’t stay there long, for her father was a medical doctor in the military, and the family moved often. This forced Jones from a young age to make subtle changes in speech patterns and behavior necessary to fit into new surroundings. The Jones family was multi-racial; her father had African roots while her mother came from a European and Caribbean background. While her father was a medical student, the family lived in an all-black neighborhood in Roxbury, Massachusetts, where she heard many comments about the fact that she looked so different from her mother. Jones told Mazi Gaillard of Harper’s Bazaar, “In order to fit in where I wasn’t fitting, I began to weave my own little worlds.”
Jones listened to music, drew in her father’s medical books, learned to play chess, and heard excerpts from Dostoyevky’s novel, Crime and Punishment every night before bed. Her father, who fostered Sarah’s dramatic approach to life, often set up a video camera
At a Glance…
Born Sarah Jones on November 29, 1974, in I Baltimore, MD. Education: Bryn Mawr University.
Career: Poet, 1997-; playwright, 2000-.
Awards Van Lier Literary Fellowship, 1998; Best One Person Show, HBO Aspen Comedy Arts Festival
Address: Agent—302-A West 12 Street, 121, New York, NY, 10014.
in front of Sarah while she made up television commercials or special shows. Jones told Gaillard that she was a very “strange and inventive child, [a] liar on fire.” By her high school years, the Jones family moved to New York City where Sarah attended the United Nations School, a place that exposed her to a myriad of accents and cultures. While she absorbed the speech, nuances, and mannerisms from several races and ethnic groups, Jones developed a keen sense of justice, a virtue that prompted her to consider a legal career.
After high school Jones attended Bryn Mawr, where she received the Mellon Minority Fellowship. Her parents divorced, and Jones moved back to New York where she immersed herself in the black bohemian life style in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. She began to write and read her poetry to audiences, thus initiating a process of self-discovery. She treated the readings as character building exercises and as a means to “exorcise her demons.” Having performed her poems at spoken-word competitions, Jones explained to American Theater’s Martha Hostetter, “These events were like a pressure-cooker, and really accelerated my creative process. I’ve always been something of a ham, mimicking people’s voices. But I had never taken any of that seriously.” However, in 1997, Jones performed her controversial poem, “Your Revolution,” and won the Grand Slam Championship at the famous Nuyorican Café, an event that changed her life in many ways.
“Your Revolution,” a poem that explicitly addressed the sexual politics of rap music, is modeled after the well known 1970s proto-rap piece by Gil Scott-Heron, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” in fact, the first line of Jones’s poem is “Your Revolution will not take place between these thighs.” Jones, who had become increasingly disappointed with the lyrics of the rap/hip hop genre played on mainstream radio decided to write “Your Revolution” as a response, attempting to applaud the hip-hop tradition while criticizing its money-worshipping, misogynist aspects. She explained to Choice USA, “Let’s face it, the larger culture is misogynist. That’s why we have the problem of people telling women what they can and cannot do with their bodies. That’s why we have media empires like Playboy. Misogyny does not begin and end with hip hop. There is a lot more diversity in hip hop than what is reflected in mainstream radio, but it is not getting out there to the larger culture.” Jones has received praise for this work, including from artists who have contributed to the sexist vein of rap music.
Having performed “Your Revolution” in many middle schools and high schools, Jones was surprised to learn that the FCC had fined KBOO, an independent radio station in Portland, Oregon, for airing the poem. The FCC claimed that it was “indecent,” that the lyrics were designed to “shock” the public. Jones found this particularly absurd because many of the words contained in her poem were merely re-packaged lyrics already found in the hip hop pieces heard on mainstream radio stations. High School Principal JoAnn Estella described one of Jones’s performances to Village Voice’s Chisun Lee, “When Sarah Jones came in, she performed, and the girls were spellbound, as was the staff. Everything that she spoke to in her poetry was positive and resonated with a lot of our young ladies.” Lisa Davis, one of Jones’s lawyers, explained to Broadcasting & Cable, “As an artist who has been very vocal on issues of social justice in general and women in particular, to be tagged ‘indecent’ flies in the face of the message she tries to convey through her art.”
More testimony in favor of the worthwhile message in “Your Revolution” was offered to Lee by Veronica De La Rosa, a student at Hunter College, “Bringing out the famous rappers and their lyrics allowed me to see that they are viewing women as sex objects. Jones tells us women that we don’t have to allow these lyrics to be true, because ‘Your revolution will not happen between these thighs.’” While Jones herself was not directly fined, the sanction against KBOO prevented other stations from airing “Your Revolution.” Early in 2003, the FCC reversed its decision and rescinded the fine levied against the radio station.
It is important to point out that Sarah Jones is much larger than the poem that put her in the spotlight. While frequenting the Nuyorican Café she created a series of performance pieces that morphed into her first one-woman show, Surface Transit. The show, which features eight unrelated, yet cosmically linked, New Yorkers, prompted Variety critic Pamela Renner to describe it as “a good deal more” than Jones’s “razor sharp rhymes.” Renner further remarked, “Jones links her verbally dextrous character monologues with a connective tissue of story so that each narrative collides with the other to create an urban landscape populated by individuals on the verge of sexual and racial collision.” Jones, using minimal props, assumes whatever attitudes, accents, and gestures needed to accurately portray her characters, male or female. Her characters include a white supremacist, a homophobic Italian cop, a black rap artist who is in a 12 step program for rhyme addiction, and a hypochondriac Jewish grandmother whose son is gay. The centerpiece for the first New York Hip Hop Festival, Surface Transit was nominated for the Drama Desk Award, also winning HBO’s Best One Person Show award.
Jones’s second solo show was developed after Gloria Steinem, the well known feminist and activist, saw a performance of Surface Transit. Equality Now, an organization of which Steinem is a member, commissioned Jones to create a show for the 2000 International Conference on Womens’ Rights. Jones was asked to portray women from various countries who live under laws that violate their human rights. An artist with a clearly feminist orientation, Jones further acquainted herself with the cultural rituals and laws of societies that were extremely oppressive toward women. What developed was Women Can’t Wait, a collection of eight vignettes portraying characters who, through their personal stories, address issues such as genital mutilation and marital rape. Once again, her props were sparse. She used a single scarf, which served, for example, as a veil, a head wrap, a doll, and handcuffs. Introduced by actress Gwyneth Paltrow, the show was well received and later went on tour. Pamela Shifman, executive director of Equality Now, declared, “Sarah gets it. We never would have gotten this much publicity for our campaign without this performance.” The process of creating Women Can’t Wait strengthened Jones’s decision to use her talents to promote social change. Taking a cue from performers such as Richard Pryor, Lily Tomlin, and Tracy Ullman, Jones incorporates her progressive social message into her character’s utterances. As in many poems by Gwendolyn Brooks, from whom she drew inspiration, Jones presented “truth” by assuming the roles of seemingly ordinary people who, while appearing insignificant in relation to some imagined “big scheme,” loom like giants or heroes in their small world, offering priceless descriptions of their unique reality.
Her next project was Waking The American Dream, commissioned by the National Immigration Forum. Waking The American Dream featured ten immigrants, all of whom have converged at a spoken word festival where each character tells their story through performance poetry. Jones addressed the particular problems of identity that immigrants face, addresses the concept of freedom, and reveals the chasm that develops between generations. Jones, who wants to continue to create pieces that are loud and unafraid declared to Gaillard, “I used to be a liar on fire but now my stories are truths.” Between shows, she gives workshops and lectures across the United States and Europe. Engaged to Steve Coleman, also a poet, Sarah Jones lives in New York.
Surface Transit, first performed at the New York Hip Hop Theater Festival, 2000.
Women Can’t Wait, first performed at the International Conference of Women’s Rights, 2000.
Waking the American Dream, first performed at the National Immigration Forum’s Annual Conference, 2002.
American Theater, September 2002.
Backstage, July 21, 2000; September 16, 2002.
Bitch, October 2002.
Broadcasting & Cable, February 4, 2002; September 16, 2002.
Choice USA, February 22, 2003.
Harper’s Bazaar, October 2000.
Ms. Magazine, October 2000.
Variety, August 21, 2000.
Village Voice, June 20-26, 2001.
Official Site for Sarah Jones, www.sarahjonesonline.com (April 14, 2003).
“Sarah Jones-Your Revolution an answer to Gil Scott-Heron’s classic rap The Revolution” Big Baer: Urban Alternative Music Reviews, www.bigbaer.com/sa-rahJones_your_revolution.htm (April 14, 2003).
—Christine Miner Minderovic
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