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Sarah Jones' Reality Theater

Sarah Jones is making a name for herself as heir to the feminist performance-art thrones of Lily Tomlin and Whoopi Goldberg, while her romance with unvarnished urbanity puts her closer akin to Spike Lee and Richard Pryor.
 
 
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Ghetto daffodils: That's what Sarah Jones sees. Some people walk through neighborhoods like Manhattan's Washington Heights, populated by poor Dominican migrants in gloomy high-rises, and they see blight. Jones instead notices people like Yajaira Hernandez, one of a kaleidoscope of characters she conjures in her latest one-woman show, "Bridge & Tunnel."

Yajaira is a fifteen-year-old, first generation immigrant from the Dominican Republic. On stage Jones morphs into the young woman, with a fast-talking Dominican accent and gum-popping bounce. The show is a fantasy open mic night in Queens, and Yajaira recites a poem. "The name of it is called 'Midnight in Harlem Feels Like Noon,'" Yajaira begins, haltingly, trying to wrap her multilingual tongue around the King's rigid English. "I know the title is a little bit esoterical. But you can just like take it home with you and just ruminate."

    midnight ghetto daffodil
    like the ones in the poems about Spring, right?
    Nah . . . she dips and sways with breezes
    bullet raindrops
    forecast for her red-brick hi-rise
    is mostly crowded. . . .

Jones has the sort of textured love affair with urban environs that we rarely see today. Because of her style -- a character artist doing poignant, comedic skits -- many compare her work to that of people like Lily Tomlin and early Whoopi Goldberg. She shares their sharp progressive wit and is making a name for herself as heir to their feminist performance-art thrones. But what's most striking about Jones is her romance with unvarnished urbanity -- an appreciation for fully human portraits of city life, warts and beauty marks alike, that is more commonly associated with artists like Spike Lee and Richard Pryor.

Jones abandons progressive pathos for honest humanity. We are meant to laugh at the immigrants and black folks she portrays as often as we cry for them. >From their accents and their bungled English to their often off-kilter understanding of American culture, her characters represent the hodgepodge of sights and sounds that make up a place as diverse as Queens. "There are some people who cringe as soon as I start speaking because their context on accents on an immigrant is negative," says Jones, riffing in her own rapid-fire diction. "What a terrible thing that we've been conditioned to immediately respond to certain people's accents as demeaning or embarrassing. As the kid of a family that has immigrants in it, I know there's a long history of people saying, 'Get rid of your accent' -- well, unless of course you're British, in which case you're dignified. So what are all these value judgments that are attached to our supposed warts?"

Jones wants her audiences to question these values and to consider what role they play in cementing America's race, gender, and class hierarchies. But rather than railing against the powers-that-be, she subtly illustrates how our common fight against them binds us. A rich Haitian homebuyer recounts the racism she endures from her realtor; a working class East European Jew, who is not at all comfortable with her grandson's love of hip hop ("Now he wants me to call him Funkmaster Sherovsky," she gripes), remembers getting the same sort of welcome seventy years ago.

This is Jones's fourth show. She has performed for the United Nations, depicting women around the world facing discrimination. She toured India, performing an early version of "Bridge & Tunnel." Her acclaimed debut show, "Surface Transit," blended the lives of a cast of characters trying to make it in New York City, from a bigoted Italian cop to a Caribbean immigrant auditioning for MTV.

All of this work has been overtly political and, not coincidentally, largely outside the mainstream. That's something Jones is sick of. But she's finally starting to get noticed by showbiz's big names -- and big money. Meryl Streep is producing "Bridge & Tunnel" and is among Jones's loudest backers. Jones is also talking with Bravo about a new television series.

"I am not interested in only preaching to the converted," says Jones, who is launching what sometimes sounds like a spiritual quest to move from the small stage to the small screens of America's living rooms. That means entering into what she calls a "crazy-making wrestling match" with the barons of the airwaves. She's already churned through one TV opportunity when she abandoned her role on an MTV program after one episode. It turned out the network wanted a heavy dose of the sort of comedy she refers to as "bitch, nigger, shit," and Sarah Jones does not do "bitch, nigger, shit." She's learned from that experience -- and has taken some advice from progressives like Streep and Tomlin.

One unfortunate lesson is that you've got to take what you can get and move on to the next fight. "So if I go to the executives at the television network," she explains, "and say I want to push the envelope and all this, and they say, 'Well, we'll only give you 50 percent of the leeway you want or you're not going to get on television,' I'm going to take the 50 percent."

Jones is perhaps best known for her fight with the Federal Communications Commission over her 1999 song "Your Revolution." The piece picks up demeaning lyrics about women from hip hop songs played on the radio every day and splices them through a Gil Scott-Heron-inspired poem. The FCC fined a Portland station for playing it, calling it "patently offensive." Jones sued -- and won.

Jones loves hip hop. The New York City native is a product of it, and she lets its aesthetic pulse throughout her work. One of her funniest skits is in "Surface Transit," where she portrays a young rapper at a recovery program for MCs addicted to rhyming.

But the culture that grew up out of the South Bronx has grown into a multibillion-dollar global industry, in which four corporate record labels control 85 percent of the market. And that, says Jones, has turned what was once an empowering thing into a modern-day opiate of the black masses.

"It's a hugely important cultural movement that has a far-reaching influence on young people in particular and culture in general that is unparalleled," she muses. "And those folks who control not only the means of production but what the content is have the power to influence public opinion in a way that I don't think anything else does. Nothing else."

Hip hop has barreled past crossover status and into market dominance for youth culture, not just in big cities but in suburbs around the country. Yet the music is now a far cry from what it was when artists like Public Enemy and KRS-One ruled the charts with songs railing against political and economic oppression of black neighborhoods.

"You can take that same kind of packaging -- the same black machismo, or in the case of women just the cool, that idea of black cool that goes back to jazz -- and insert into that package a message that reinforces some really problematic notions of who urban people are, who people of color are," Jones argues, slipping into one of her MC characters. "'Yeah, I'm a drug slingin' nigga.' And you begin to create that as your cool."

"Your Revolution" sought to reclaim black cool. The track's slow, easy pace, mixed with harsh, biting lyrics, evoked Miles Davis. But Jones did her own repackaging of that macho cool when she performed it as part of "Surface Transit." She portrayed a teenage black girl waiting at the bus stop, getting harassed by men ogling her. Calm, sassy, and self-aware, the young ghetto daffodil shows how she's growing into a street-smart woman when she responds by breaking into "Your Revolution."

    . . . Your revolution will not be you smacking it up, flipping it, or rubbing it down
    Nor will it take you downtown and humpin' around
    Because that revolution will not happen between these thighs.

Kai Wright is a contributing editor of City Limits magazine in New York City.