The Astonishing Sarah Jones’ Surface Transit

Written by Jonathan Kalb on . Posted in Posts, Theater.

Sarah Jones

Childs gets away with this
little oversight largely because of her show’s infectious ebullience and
earnestness. As we know all too well, identity has become a battleground today,
both in society and in theater. The safe stability Viveca seeks (and purportedly
finds) is widely considered a naive fiction; chameleonesque, actorly behavior
qualifies as a profound subject and social paradigm in itself; and a whole genre
of solo performance has blossomed in the spirit of making sense of all the upheaval
and confusion. The genre I refer to might be called "quasi-documentary,"
and it involves single actors performing extraordinarily acute impressions of
broadly familiar characters (fictional and not) who are extremely different
from the actors and who are chosen to make pungent points about the messy, fleshy
realities of "difference." Performers as diverse as Anna Deavere Smith,
Marc Wolf, John Leguizamo, Danny Hoch and the young, not-yet-commodified Whoopi
Goldberg have all traveled this territory, and it’s now being explored
by a brilliant newcomer: Sarah Jones.

Jones is 25. According to
her press materials, she has been performing around New York’s hiphop club
circuit since she dropped out of Bryn Mawr. (Money ran short in the family after
her sister became ill; she reportedly later attended Hunter College, where I
teach, but I never met her.) The product of a mixed marriage, she grew up in
numerous cities on the East Coast as her father moved around in the military,
and she’s obviously as familiar as Childs is with black/white shape-shifting
and the world’s nasty epithets for it ("zebra," "oreo").
The difference is, this flinty, streetwise-feminist and winner of the 1997 Nuyorican
Poets Cafe Grand Slam Championship hasn’t an ounce of Childs’ bubbliness.
Tall, strongly slender, with a severely beautiful face and a cascade of thickly
bunched black hair gathered high and tight, she is the sharpest and most accomplished
solo impressionist I’ve seen since Danny Hoch (who, as it happens, is the
producer of her show).

Surface Transit is
a collection of eight character vignettes, and it begins, unfortunately, with
one that sets up the wrong tenor for the evening. Jones enters (and leaves at
the end) as a toothless old homeless woman whose decrepitude she can’t
quite pull off and whose orientation seems funny at first, creating an expectation
for a series of broadly drawn, comedic characters. The more genuine humor behind
all the other characters is the product of her ability to communicate real compassion
and pathos and see through types to the subtle particularity in each. Her orientation
radically shifts in this direction within minutes of her next scene as Pasha,
a Russian immigrant and widow of a black American, who speaks with brittle courage
to her daughter while doing cornrows in her blonde hair. The precision of Jones’
Russian accent and the jarring contrast between her self-confidence and statuesque
beauty and Pasha’s heartsick determination and fragile humility seize attention
like a public secret.

All the characters in the
90-minute piece, directed by Gloria Feliciano, are fictional New Yorkers whose
lives turn out to be linked in distant or intimate ways, and this linkage reads
as a sort of sociocultural round dance similar to the sociosexual one in Arthur
Schnitzler’s Reigen (La Ronde). The next character, Lorraine
Levine, for instance, is the elderly, narrow-minded and bigoted Jewish woman
Pasha cares for, who is capriciously thinking of firing her and who fills time
by making mischief with various lies and half-truths over the phone. Mrs. Levine
is a repellent figure who comes so close to stereotype that she borders on offensiveness,
and the same is true of Joey, a deactivated Italian-American cop introduced
later, who speaks in the crudest terms to his psychiatrist about his violent

In these cases too, though,
it’s Jones’ precision that matters. The meticulousness she brings
to Mrs. Levine’s exact manner of coughing, cackling and handling the phone,
or Joey’s belligerent way of sitting, holding his neck and spitting out
his copious ignorance as expertise (he’s in a rage over the "loss"
of his best friend–Mrs. Levine’s son–to the "illness"
of homosexuality), ensures that the actress’ investment in the characters
seems far deeper than stereotyping. Indeed, the characters closest to Jones
herself–the ones written with greatest originality and acted with the most
affection and sympathy–are more poignant and powerful for being surrounded
by nemeses. Sugar Jones, for instance, is a black, British, unemployed actress
who becomes imprudently emotional while narrating a past sexual assault during
an audition for a "real-life" tv show called SICK (Seven
Immigrants, a Campsite, and Kayak
). When it turns out that her assailant
was Joey, both her humanity and his come off, perversely, as fuller, more understandable.

Similarly, when Jones gently
lampoons a young recovering rapper named Rashid, who relapses into marvelous
hiphop rhymes while leading a meeting of "the reformed MC wannabe-Junior
Mafia revolutionary new Black Panther society of Hunter College," she is
setting him up for a contrast with his girlfriend, Keisha Ray, that will cut
two ways. Strong-willed and self-confident Keisha Ray, tired of fending off
predatory males while waiting for a bus, launches into a magnificent feminist
response to Gil Scott-Heron’s "The revolution will not be televised":
"your revolution will not happen between these thighs/the real revolution/ain’t
about booty size/the Versaces you buys/or the Lexus you drives…" In the
end, the two hiphop poems, male and female, are complemented and strengthened
by each other, so that neither his anti-commodity machismo nor her patriarchy-popping
hubris can read as narrow, parochial or naive.

Jones has set up a fascinating
and astonishingly risky project here, of self-definition by opposition. She
meticulously occupies the flattering and unflattering corpora of everyone in
an imagined circular world that is violent and racist but also humane, beautiful
and estranged in every direction by (and this is the startlingly hopeful moment)
only one degree of separation. This company of faithfully represented Others
is all the more moving for the skill and effort required to perform it live,
six times a week–how much less powerful the whole thing would be as a bunch
of one-time "takes" caught on tape or film!–and the sensibility
that emerges is that of a judicious and compassionate observer whose sophistication
comes, blessedly, not from any packaged attitude but from her own wide-open

P.S. 122, 150 1st Ave. (9th
St.), 477-5288, through Aug. 26.

When They
Speak of Rita
Daisy B. Foote

To answer the obvious question
right away: no, I don’t think Primary Stages would ever have produced Daisy
Foote’s When They Speak of Rita if her father weren’t the Pulitzer-
and Oscar-winning author Horton Foote. She’s had several regional productions
of her plays, but her brand of amiable, emotionally muted realism just isn’t
the sort of thing one sees these days either at Primary Stages or any of New
York’s other principal new-play venues. It’s possible that rarity
has been her big break, however, perhaps allowing the work to come off as a
refreshing anomaly. The show–directed by the elder Foote (at age 84) and
starring Daisy’s older sister Hallie–has been extended to an open-ended

Daisy Foote writes about
small-town New Hampshire (where she grew up) in a generous and modest spirit
similar to the way her father has long written about smalltown Texas (where
he grew up). She has a fine ear for the gentle rhythms of utterance and evasion
among ultra-polite, working-class people, and a sure handle on their psychology.
The problem, for me, is that she writes as if the last several waves of feminism
never happened. The title character of Rita is a discontented housewife who
creates a minor scandal by running off with her teenage son’s best friend,
only to return scarcely happier and take up the same self-abnegating life she
led before. Hallie Foote is excellent in this role, and several other cast members
are first-rate as well. I had to check my program during the show, though, to
make sure the story was really set in "the present" and not 1975,
and in the end I didn’t believe it.

Primary Stages, 354 W. 45th
St. (betw. 8th & 9th Aves.), 333-4052.