BWW Interview: Sarah Jones: BUY Herself, But Never Without Her Posse of Characters
Tony Award-winner Sarah Jones will be encoring her one-woman/multi-character show SELL/BUY/DATE in Los Angeles, this time at the LGBT Center's Renberg Theatre, with previews beginning September 27, 2018. Having seen Sarah's show earlier this year at the Geffen, I jumped at the chance to dive into the back stories of Sarah and her multiple personalities she shares the stage with.
Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Sarah!
I had the opportunity to catch your recent SELL/BUY/DATE at the Geffen. You were AH-Mazing! Will there be any tweaks between your Geffen show and your upcoming LGBT Center production?
Thanks so much! Since the show has some topical themes that are affected by our current news cycle, there will likely be a few subtle tweaks. I won't be specific, but let's just say I'd love to work the word 'impeachment' into the script somehow if I could...
So, you continually fine tune your show since its inception, your world premiere at the Manhattan Theatre Club Off-Broadway 2016?
Absolutely. Again, since it tackles history (that is to say, current events for those of us living in 2018), through the lens of the future, I've necessarily had to train my eye on the ever-more-stage-worthy developments of the past couple of years, and right up to this moment.
How did you come up with your very clever title and spelling of SELL/BUY/DATE?
At the risk of sounding like the voice(s) in my head are a little too real for me, I heard it as an idea that tugged at my ear and declared itself the definitive title; more so than my actually coming up with it. And I knew I wanted to pose the question as to whether there's an expiration date, (a sell-by date for you Anglophiles) on the ways we as a culture commodify (sell, buy) sex. Also in my research, I had heard many prostituted women call their appointments with johns "dates." So it felt right.
Do you plan to bring Praveen, Rashid, Bella, Habiba, Lorraine, Ms. Lady and Joey along with you to the Renberg Theatre? Or do you invite or not invite some of them to show up according to your mood or the audience's mood?
The script will be set, and most of the "cast" will be familiar to those who saw the premiere at MTC... but there are a few key new voices, and some new developments in the individual character's journeys, which "frequent flyers" will notice, having seen the piece before.
Of the characters you inhabit in your shows, is there any particular character that your friends would say, "That's really Sarah, herself!"? Or are there aspects of yourself in every one of your characters?
For better and worse, I'd say there's at least a bit of me in every one of them. Especially the ones I'd like to think are nothing like me - the men who objectify women, for example, who evaluate them based on appearance. Well, the truth is I've had a lifetime of objectifying myself - buying into some of the same sexist ideas we see exposed in the #metoo movement. There are important differences, of course, and I work hard not to cause the kind of harm, to myself or others, that my characters sometimes do. But there's a humbling, cathartic beauty in examining how much I, like my characters, have been shaped by my experiences to fall into belief systems and behavioral patterns that aren't aligned with who I really want to be.
How old were you when you realized you could master accents and mimicry/impersonations?
In addition to being surrounded by my multicultural family's voices and accents, I was an early reader (Thank you, Head Start and early education programs!) and I think by age three, I had figured out that stories were far more interesting when I read the characters' voices aloud and with specific different identities.
In this PC-sensitive day and age, would you agree that your multi-cultural heritage affords you the inherent license to take on your various non-Caucasian personas? I think it's great that you do.
It's funny, this is changing slowly, but my experience is that there's an entrenched hierarchy of races, ethnic groups, genders, orientations, in which some voices have historically been minimized, or dehumanized, if not completely silenced. But that ranking system has one wonderful side effect: those of us toward "the bottom" are more likely to have been forced, through the sheer lack of stories written by, for, and about us, to understand protagonists unlike ourselves. I've heard many women speak about how easy it is to write male characters because that was the majority of what they'd been exposed to. And because of the added layer of my having not only white people, but folks of dozens of other identities either in my family or in my life as friends, schoolmates, neighbors since childhood; I feel a proximity and kinship with my characters that makes me unafraid to embody anyone.
You originally studied law at Bryn Mawr College. Do you find you're glad you did, now having a solid foundation in the legal aspects of your writings?
I actually didn't make it all the way to the law part. I was a double major, English and Philosophy, since Bryn Mawr didn't have a traditional pre-law major. But I think those areas of study have held me in good stead, a few scrapes with the FCC and others notwithstanding.
Speaking of the FCC, in doing my background research on you for this interview, I saw a YouTube video of you performing your censored song "Your Revolution" from 2001. What specific lyrics did the FCC find indecent?
They wouldn't tell me. I don't think they knew themselves. But if you figure it out, let me know - I'm still curious.
You found out you won a Special Tony Award for your BRIDGE AND TUNNEL way before the 2006 awards telecast. How were you notified? Phone call? Email? Telegram? Carrier pigeon?
Do you know I can't remember? I just know being on Broadway eight shows per week, with no other castmates and no understudy, left almost no bandwidth for anything else. It felt like I was in a hermetic seal, trying to make sure my characters and I got out there and gave each new audience a show as fresh as if it were the beginning of the run. So I think the glamour and excitement of the Tonys didn't really land till I was standing on the red carpet.
What extraterrestrial forces brought you, your BRIDGE AND TUNNEL, and Meryl Streep together?
I have the same question. I must have been a real mensch in a past life! No, the serious answer is much better: Meryl was volunteering some of her (nonexistent!!) free time in support of Equality Now, a human rights group working on behalf of women and girls' rights globally. And because I had turned down a Hollywood project I really didn't believe in, I had landed in the nonprofit, humanitarian world my United Nations school roots had prepared me for. Except instead of traditional diplomacy as social justice work, I used my art. Which is something Meryl does better than anyone. So I think that's why the fates brought us together, and BRIDGE AND TUNNEL came about within a couple of years.
What do you remember of the Sardi's ceremony where they unveiled your caricature?
I was thrilled... and relieved. It was a relatively flattering interpretation! I like to think they were extra easy on me because the Helen Hayes (where B&T was running) was right next door, and Sardi's was one of my go-to lunch spots on two-show days!
With the not-so-long-ago explosion of Lin-Manuel Miranda's HAMILTON, people began discovering an entertaining way to learn cut-and-dry history. When did the light bulb first flash in your mind that using humor was a more effective method of communicating messages or lessons?
Probably in elementary school when I realized my classmates wouldn't tease me as much about my mixed racial background if I could make them laugh with my impressions of the main characters in the Wizard of Oz.
Your shows all have messages (WOMEN CAN'T WAIT! - discriminatory laws again women, WAKING THE AMERICAN DREAM - immigration issues, A RIGHT TO CARE - ethnic and racial health disparities in the U.S.). What specific messages would you hope the Renberg Theatre audience absorbs from SELL/BUY/DATE?
Well, I don't want to give it all away, but we are living in... an unpresidented moment. But there's still time for all of us, all genders, all races, all identities, to ask ourselves what kind of world we want to leave to the future generations who will hopefully survive to study us in history classes--and, to course correct. It's not too late. Yet.
Thank you again, Sarah! I look forward to meeting all your crazy characters again!