New York — IN "Bridge & Tunnel," Sarah Jones' solo Broadway comedy, a Mrs. Lorraine Levine kicks off the poetry slam proceedings with a senior citizen jeremiad. Her hand fumbling with reading glasses, she prefaces the poem by recalling the anti-Semitism faced by her immigrant parents. "Thank God, times have changed," she says, "It may not be perfect, but we live in the best country in the world. Here in America we have freedom to say what we want, be what we want, to decide what happens in our country. We even get to decide what happens in other people's countries."
The last line always gets a laugh. But Jones says she's been taken aback by a response that comes earlier in the monologue. "Right after I say, 'We live in the greatest country in the world,' the audience bursts into applause, which feels very flag-waving. At first I thought, 'I guess we got Texas in the house.' But it's naive to stereotype on the basis of geography. We have purple states, purple cities, purple suburbs, this groundswell of support for so-called traditional liberal values."
The show, set in a Queens coffeehouse, and its multitalented writer and performer have ridden that groundswell to theatrical stardom. Three years ago, the 32-year-old Jones was largely known as a hip-hop poet and performance artist, most famous for having successfully faced down the FCC over an indecency ruling for her recording "Your Revolution," a suggestively witty rant against rap misogyny.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday March 07, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
Sarah Jones -- An article on "Bridge & Tunnel" actress Sarah Jones in Sunday Calendar incorrectly referred to Steve Colman as Jones' fiance. He is her husband.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday March 12, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
Sarah Jones -- An article in Calendar on March 5 about "Bridge & Tunnel" actress Sarah Jones referred to Steve Colman as Jones' fiance. He is her husband.
That changed when Meryl Streep, impressed with Jones' performance at an Equality Now benefit, lent her celebrity as producer of a 2004 off-Broadway version of "Bridge & Tunnel" at the Culture Project. The show garnered rave reviews and a seven-month sold-out run. After a hiatus, it reopened last month on Broadway to more acclaim, including Charles Isherwood's New York Times review that praised the writing as "lively, compassionate and smart" and Jones as "an astonishing mimic" for 14 characters as diverse as a hyperkinetic black rapper, a disabled Mexican immigrant worker and a Chinese American mother trying to make sense of her daughter's lesbian marriage. The show has since been extended at the Helen Hayes Theatre through July 9.
Not since 1985, when Mike Nichols presented Whoopi Goldberg, has a young performer made such an auspicious bow on Broadway. Jones follows in the tradition of such other socially charged artists as Lily Tomlin, Anna Deavere Smith and John Leguizamo. But "Bridge & Tunnel" arrives at a much more politically polarized time. And though the applause that greets the line "the best country in the world" reflects the complexity of the audience's political feelings, it is also a marker of the safe environment Jones creates with her gently satiric characters, from the good-natured Pakistani emcee accountant facing a government inquiry, to the chiding Mrs. Levine, to the Russian emigre who satirized his government for spying on its own people -- a subject he suggests is suddenly relevant in his adoptive home.
"The piece was always invitational," says Tony Taccone, the artistic director of the Berkeley Rep who staged the show. He acknowledges that although there has been the occasional walkout, "there is also a certain level of empathy that Sarah has regardless of where you stand on the political spectrum. One of her political strategies is to use comedy as an invitation to consider ideas that are controversial. It's gentle in tone but very persuasive and at its heart lies its humanity."
In an e-mail, Streep says Jones' humanism is "a reflection of her inner self." When she met Jones at the benefit for Equality Now, an organization that works to end discrimination and violence against women and girls around the world, she recognized "a woman who is confident and inspiring from the soul outward," a writer and an actor who will "continue to invent people, situations, lives and souls, and inhabit them."
For Jones, her uncanny mimicry -- she slides from character to character with dead-on accent, body language and the slightest costume change, be it a scarf, a cap or glasses -- is merely a means to an end. "More important than the transformations are the interactions that I hope the audience has with these characters when people are forced to see others as human beings and not just 'the Other,' these scary people they've been taught to hate, fear, be suspicious of," she says. "I want to be a conduit for that exchange."
SITTING in the casual office of the funky Greenwich Village apartment she shares with her fiance, Steve Colman, also a poet and performance artist who starred in "Def Poetry Jam" on Broadway, Jones emerges as quite distinct from the human cocktail of "Bridge & Tunnel." She is unusually attractive, with sensuous eyes, a luxurious mane of black hair and a trim, coltish figure. She is passionately opinionated, bristling with utter contempt and alarm over the policies of the man "I graciously call 'president.' "