Volume 74, Number 10 | July 7 - 13, 2004

Theater

“bridge & tunnel”
Written and performed by Sarah Jones
45 Bleecker Street Theatre
(212) 253-9983
Runs through August 15


Compelling one-woman show

‘Listening well’ to the immigrant experience

By JERRY TALLMER

“ . . . we must never forget that we are all a nation of immigrants . . . “
— John Fitzgerald Kennedy

There are 14 of them, or 15 including the host of this evening’s Poetry Slam, a Pakistani American of great good will named Mohammed Ali — each and every one of the 15 speaking English flavored with a different tongue. But they all come out of the mouth and art and flexibility and beauty of one American named Sarah Jones, in a show at 45 Bleecker Street called “bridge & tunnel” that is as sheer exhilarating as anything in town.

Each by each, in a flash, throwing on perhaps some particular article of clothing, Sarah Jones/Mohammed Ali becomes gabby Loraine Levine, Polish-German-Lithaunian-Jewish Long Islander; fiery Mr. Bao Viet Dinh, from Chicago by way of New Jersey (“This is not an / Asian lotus blossom / Love poem”); 29ish-year-old Gladys Bailey from Jamaica, who wryly observes “there are basically few career possibilities for people of Jamaican ancestry in this country. One is to become Secretary of State. Another is to take care of children and old people . . . ”

And so on. Fifteen times. Black people. Brown people. White people. Shy people. Brash people. Rebels. Optimists. Pessimists. An explosive Russian who won’t get out of his seat in the audience, declaims from there. A straitlaced Chinese American mother, Mrs. Ling, who after much agony has decided “I will go to visit my daughter, tell her I will support her when she comes out of the closet. I want to meet her girlfriend . . . ”

All in less than two hours. All interwoven with poetry as proffered by each of these individuals, some of it good, some of it marvelous, some of it (deliberately) bad. If you think it’s easy to write bad poetry to order, just try it.

And if you think it is easy to think up and write and act this whole show, or its predecessor, “Surface Transit,” at P.S. 122 a couple of years ago, then your name is Sarah Jones, and you are tall and clean-boned and stunning, and between the ages of 11 and 17 you went to the United Nations International School, at 25th Street and FDR Drive in this city, where, for instance, “in math class you would have literally 35 people from 35 different countries.”

It further helped that she has “always had a fascination for accents and people’s voices.”

Meryl Streep, who has been known to speak in tongues — more than several — saw Sarah Jones in performance at a Quality Now function here in the spring of 2002, got talking with her, asked what she wanted to do next.

As it happens, Ms. Jones was already at work on “Waking the American Dream,” a project commissioned by the Ford Foundation to raise people’s awareness about immigrants. That sort of morphed into the present show, with Meryl Streep as one of the producers.

“Hey, immigrants are here, and here’s what to know about them that you don’t know, and why you shouldn’t fear them. The funny thing is all this happened — the Ford Foundation commission — BEFORE September 11.

“Come,” says Sarah Jones, “we can talk in the dressing room. It’s pitch black getting there. You have to watch your step. And since I have no understudy . . . ,” she remarks with a laugh. The back of her T-shirt, as she leads the way, is inscribed: “ACTING IS MY DAY JOB.”

She was born November 29, 1973, in Johns Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore, where her parents were med students. They are Ronald Jones, M.D., “of African-American and some hodgepodge of Caribbean background”; her mother is Leslie Farrington, “an obgyn [obstetrician/gynecologist] who as long as people keep getting together, will never be out of work.” That half of Sarah’s roots are Irish-American, German, Dominican, and other Caribbean.

“Because I’m not an immigrant myself, I didn’t think about immigrants on a daily basis. How they can be deported, and their children left here. How they can’t get health insurance. The problems of getting a green card. How politicians manipulate around all that.

“So I did research. I talked with people I went to school with, talked to taxi drivers, doctors, immigration officials, people in my family. I learned a lot. It was like getting a masters,” says the young woman who “was a rising junior at Bryn Mawr, but I never rose all the way . . . “

How come?

“Well, a couple of things. My parents got divorced, so I needed financial aid, and . . . “ She stops, takes a breath. “And also, I . . . I needed to come home.”

It was after she came home that she discovered the East Village, the Lower East Side, and the Nuyorican Poets Cafe on East 3rd Street, home of the Grand Slam poetry championshps.

“I got involved in hanging out, almost professionally, partying, going to clubs and parties and all that kind of thing, during this burgeoning hip-hop culture. On any given night Snoop Doggie Dog might be standing at the bar next to me.

“The Nuyorican Cafe was the only place to satisfy my intellectual needs while I was still a social butterfly. I started out as an audience member; then one open night I became a reluctant guinea pig — ‘Come on, Sarah! Come on!’ — so I got up and staggered through a poem, a bitter love poem about an ex-boyfriend.

“And that’s where I met Steve. If you read enough poems about ex-boyfriends, people know you’re available.”

Steve is Steve Colman, 34, white, from Engelwood, New Jersey, “my partner and fiance,” assistant director of “bridge & tunnel.” They live together in the West Village. He helped write and was one of the stars of last year’s Tony-winning “Def Poetry Jam” on Broadway. A couple of lines of the poetry in “bridge & tunnel” are his.

“All that immigration stuff became part of my daily thinking. And then September 11 came along, and as immigration-rights people say, for immigrants there were September 10 issues and now there are September 11 issues.”

“God bless America, but not because of you,” a Haitian American woman named Rose Aimee proclaims in a poem addressed to “a certain [bigoted] real-estate man”:

God Bless the Haitian immigrants, and Cubans too God Bless the Italians, Koreans, and the Colombians who came God Bless Jamaicans, the Chinese, the Spanish Without them, Florida will have no name God Bless the Polish, the Mexicans, the French Without them McDonalds will have no fries God Bless the Japanese, Senegalese, and Swedish Without them, no Nobel prize God Bless the Turkish, the Vietnamese, the people from Peru God Bless America, but not because of you “For me,” says Sarah Jones, “the writing process is how well I can hold those voices in my head. So that what comes out of my mouth sounds real and serious. You want to get it right.”

To that end, something she quite recently heard Meryl Streep say struck home — “Acting is listening.”

Sarah Jones listens well. Go to 45 Bleecker Street and you will too.


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