Sarah Jones speaks better than passable French. Although she's used it in one of her shows, she has yet to impersonate a Left Bank fashionista. But it endears her to the waiter at a Belgian café in Greenwich Village. Just moments before, she was an animated New Yorker—warm, funny, opinionated—whose hands spoke as emphatically as her mouth. In a flash she makes a seamless transition, not just speaking en français but doing so with the subtle vocal modulations and gestures of a true Parisienne.
A Tony Award-winning playwright, actress and spoken-word poet, Jones, 33, has a genius for climbing into other people's skin, which is both the cornerstone of her success and the main reason she has earned fame far beyond the tiny New York theaters where she started out. "She changes colors right before your eyes," Meryl Streep once said of her.
Streep was so impressed by Jones' one-woman show, Bridge & Tunnel—in which she plays 14 distinct characters, including a black rapper, a Jewish grandmother, a Chinese-American mom, a Dominican teenager and an elderly Russian man—that Streep decided to co-produce it in 2004 as an off-Broadway show. In 2006, the play opened on Broadway, where audiences and critics ate it up. Charles Isherwood of the New York Times called Bridge & Tunnel "Jones' sweet-spirited valentine to New York City, its polyglot citizens and the larger notion of an all-inclusive America, that ideal place where concepts like liberty, equality and opportunity have concrete meaning and are not just boilerplate phrases." He went on to praise Jones' "uncanny ability to alter the texture, color and volume of her voice and even the shape of her body."
"Sarah has a unique empathy for people," says Steve Colman, Jones' husband and a respected spoken-word performer himself. "She has a deep cultural awareness that enables her to portray fully realized characters."
Jones finds most of those characters in her own circle of friends, she says, or by eavesdropping on the subway. "If I hear something that's too good to be true, I'll follow them and say, ‘Hi, I know this is crazy, but this is what I do. You're a really interesting person.' They're usually immigrants," she says, "and we're a country built by immigrants, whether they came over on the Mayflower, on slave ships or through Ellis Island. Unless you're Native American, everyone here has some kind of immigrant story."
The Baltimore-born Jones combines many such stories in her own background. Her father is African-American and her mother is of European-American and Caribbean- American descent. Jones moved to Queens, New York, at age 11, in time to start seventh grade at the United Nations International School in Manhattan before going on to Bryn Mawr College. Both parents are doctors, and Jones considered med school before deciding she was too squeamish. "I can't stand blood," she says. "I can barely get through an episode of ‘The Sopranos.' I hope to get to the point where I can be a healing force through my art without having to slice anybody open."
After college, she dived into New York's thriving hip-hop and poetry scenes. Jones once got a ride home from a club with the legendary Notorious B.I.G., one of the rappers she later challenged head-on in her poem "Your Revolution," a scathingly satiric blast at the misogyny and hyper-materialism that, in her view, and others', colors too many hip-hop lyrics. "The real revolution ain't about booty size / The Versaces you buys / Or the Lexus you drives," she rapped in performances that echoed Gil Scott-Heron's famed "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised."
Jones' poem, which was eventually recorded, was broadcast on a Portland, Oregon, nonprofit station, and it landed her in the fight of her life—not with hip-hoppers but the Feds. Though its salty language was tamer than the records it lampooned, "Your Revolution" spurred one radio listener to complain to the Federal Communications Commission in 2001; the station that had played it was fined $7,000 for airing indecent material. Jones sued the FCC in federal court, claiming that the ruling violated her First Amendment rights; in 2003, before the legal battle was resolved, the FCC rescinded the fine and ruled that the recording wasn't indecent after all.
The case drew a lot of attention and may even have helped Jones' career by making her a symbol of free expression. She met Streep, performed at a U.N. conference on women's rights and for members of Congress, earned commissions from the Ford Foundation and became an increasingly visible advocate for feminist causes. Meanwhile, she was performing Bridge & Tunnel off-Broadway, earning as much respect for her dramatic talent as for her outspokenness. The Associated Press called it "the most satisfying solo show since Mike Nichols unveiled Whoopi Goldberg and Lily Tomlin searched for signs of intelligent life in the universe nearly 20 years ago."
Though Bridge & Tunnel was a funny, character-driven show, it did not shy away from commenting on weightier matters, such as racial profiling and National Security Agency wiretapping; during the play's seven-month run at Broadway's Helen Hayes Theater, audiences embraced the show's serious elements as well as its humor. "It was a reminder that audiences will rise to the occasion if you invite them to engage in political ideas for a little while, as long as you have a good time and it's not just about that," says Jones.
Jones recently took Bridge & Tunnel to Los Angeles, where it is expected to close later this month. She is also creating pieces for UNICEF to draw attention to child abuse, and is currently developing a TV show—something that may take a cue from the popular 1990s sitcom Roseanne, "about a working-class family with heavyset parents who were as far from Nicole Richie and Paris Hilton as you could possibly be," she says. Roseanne's raucous, dysfuctional family dynamics upended the mythical middle America of Ozzie and Harriet in the 1950s. "But the honesty was refreshing," Jones says, "and it came with humor."
Journalist Elizabeth Méndez Berry lives and works in New York City.