Playwright-performer Sarah Jones "plays with the spaces between" questions about self-creation for her one-woman shows, Surface Transit (2000), Tony award-winning Bridge & Tunnel (2004, produced by Meryl Streep), and Sell/Buy/Date (2016). Jones slips seamlessly into character during her shows, donning their props and accents: elderly Jewish Lorraine; soft-spoken Lakota Gary; fast-talking feminist Bella; and many others.
Her most recent play, Sell/Buy/Date, came about in part due to experiences she had performing for audiences that weren't her "usual well-heeled Broadway" crowd, and which caused her to think about stories she wasn't hearing.
"Sell/Buy/Date is about human beings eking out an existence any way they can," Jones told me in our phone interview. "It's about women's empowerment, questions of sex and sexuality, and commercialization of sexual exploitation of women."
Jones is perhaps the first honest realization of Whitman's boast of containing multitudes. Except she doesn't contain them. Their existence isn't contradictory or parenthetical to her own. She's created these people fully — with individual ticks, accents, mannerisms. They seem to live beside her, entering her life (and our lives) at will.
Jones's newest project, her podcast, Playdate with Sarah Jones, a Q&A during which guests will be interviewed by Jones and the characters, launched April 13.
"It's about bringing the spirit of play into everything," including "resistance, protest, and being serious about our craft...play has to be the fertile terrain where we start. It makes it a lot more fun to get into issues of the day."
This spirit of entertainment-as-resistance led me to interview a few of Sarah's characters about Donald Trump's first 100 days in office. These people felt so real, I found myself treating them each a bit differently in deference to their discrete personalities — Jones's artistic genius at work.
Lorraine, you've said you can't keep up with what's ok to say. Have you felt freer to express yourself under Trump's administration?
Lorraine: It frightens me that you even have to ask me that — just because I'm older, it doesn't mean I want to be an ignoramus. I'm not suggesting the current resident of the White House is an ignoramus — that would be too much of an understatement. The point is, I don't always know the right thing to say, but I try to learn. Sarah helps me. I went to the Women's March, and I even heard Gloria Steinem say it — you have to be "woke.' [Chuckles] Just because you're older doesn't mean you can't learn...It's not always easy to keep up. People ask what's your PGP — preferred gender pronoun — what's this, it sounds like a drug, your PGP. Some sort of street drug. Anyway, I tell Sarah all the time: you might not realize it now because you're young, you're hip, and you're paying attention to whatever's going on. I'm not trying to avoid these things. It's just too much too fast...But, no, I don't agree with what's happening there in Washington. I don't know if you speak Yiddish but I'll just say it my way. The genaivishe schtickle. [Loosely translated, "dirty tricks."]
Narada, in 2009, you said Latinos would soon be the majority, and need to be part of the exchange of ideas. Has your sense of the possibility for inclusion changed after witnessing the 2016 campaign, the executive orders on immigration?
Narada: Thank you for including me. That's your first clue I don't feel included [laughs]. You know what I mean? I have to thank you. For some people, it's an afterthought to involve Latinos and the Latinx community in decision making...We're seeing what happens when people don't actually care, they just pay lip service. Back when Saturday Night Live thought it was a hilarious, fantastic idea to have Donald Trump on their show, it normalized him, his culture. Latinos were out in front of 30 Rock protesting. Nobody else. I'm sorry, I'm getting emotional right now. We were like canaries in the coal mine. I don't know if that expression is right. We were the Latinos in front of 30 Rock, ok? That's the same as being canaries in the coal mine. It makes me sad that people don't listen to us, and they end up in the mess, too. I want to tell them: even just for your own self-interest, listen to the needs of people who maybe don't speak your same language...It's like they say: They come for us in the morning, they come for you at night. It's true. I'm sorry I don't have something funny to say. It's just not funny.
Habiba, you've said, "We in global society are never as different as appearances may suggest," and, "for every word intended to render us deaf to one another, there is always a lyric connecting ears and hearts across the continents, in rhyme." Have you seen a meaningful literary and artistic response to recent attempts to "render us deaf to one another"?
Habiba: If you attend, as I did, The Women's March; if you attend a march in your local area, wherever you're living, you will see poetry pouring forth from the heart of people onto their protest signs, out of their lips to chant together. People are writing more, I would call it "intersectional" because that's the word we are using, but from the place of culture, art, and even religion. To find Jewish cemeteries being protected by Muslims, Jewish and Muslim women coming together to fight discrimination against all women, to fight...I preferred the title he had before Inauguration — [the] Predator-Elect. I have been calling [this], not terra incognita, but terror incognita — a terror we've never seen because it's a different breed. I, of course, know what is terror from different angles, but this is a kind of sophisticated, media-trained, television, game-show-type of terror he brings to the White House. In the skillful response, not just reactivity, of the people, we are seeing, I believe, a kind of cultural reconfiguration in this country that's so necessary. It's going into, not only literature, but the mainstream. For that, we can be grateful.
Rashid, in 2014, you said answering random questions felt like an "intellectual stop-and-frisk." How do you feel now about the potential uptick in literal instances of stop-and-frisk, having a "tough on crime" advocate as president?
Rashid: How you wanna call yourself tough on crime when you the criminal? We saw with Philando Castile — they pull you over for a broken tail light or some such, next thing you know, they arrest you on a warrant for some overdue parking fines, then next thing you know you killed in front of your baby. We got a very skewed understanding of what's criminal. What's criminal is robbing American people — banks, billions of dollars — then, you wanna lock up all the black, brown, and poor people for doing next to nothing except living into a system y'all done built, that don't give people no decent access to education, housing, health, or whatever. You want to point to the criminals? I can show you. Just point towards Washington, D.C. I ain't talking about all the black people there who've got taxation without federal representation.
Gary, as a member of the Blackfeet nation, and someone who is half-Lakota, how has it been for you to observe first the victory of the Standing Rock Sioux in December, and then their recent removal from tribal lands?
Gary: I'm sure many will remember when the herd of buffalo came, their display of protection for the land and people. That will impact everyone who saw it for the rest of their lives...I think I speak for everyone when I say I still have chills. Most people aren't taught the history, whether it's Pine Ridge Reservation, or Rosebud, the things that happened on our land, within living memory, much less the massacres that have created a generational trauma for not only those who were massacred, but, I think, those in the position to remove our people from our land. They, too, are damaged because they believe they're righteous. They don't understand that destruction of the land that gives them life is a form of self-destructive thinking and acting. They don't have enough vision to see they're signing a death sentence for themselves, their grandchildren...I feel sorry for them: People who can't see. It's one thing to try to enrich yourself. It's another thing to not realize you're effectively committing incremental suicide. Our people — we've suffered such great losses because of colonial presence — we, at least, can see it. I try as much as I can to remember to have a forgiving heart for those with such deep, deep ignorance who would harm themselves, their country, their children this way.
I hope people understand: I get mad, too. But, if I stay angry at them — they can't hear me in their towers — the anger only poisons me. That doesn't mean I don't get angry, but I try to aim it in the right direction, make sure I buffer it with a forgiving heart.
Photos via sarahjonesonline.com
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Sarah Hoenicke spends most of her time reading and writing for BOMB, Guernica, the LA Review of Books, and other publications She hopes to finish her first novel, about a young girl finding her way out of religion, before starting work toward her masters at UC Berkeley this fall. In 2016, she won the Cargoes undergraduate prose prize for her short story, 'How Dark it is, Outside."