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Sarah Jones sees the funny side of identity politics

Have you met Ms Jones?

The impressionist’s stage shows are both hilarious and hard-hitting. Sheila Marikar meets Sarah Jones as she brings her art to the television screen

The impressionist’s stage shows are both hilarious and hard-hitting. Sheila Marikar meets Sarah Jones as she brings her art to the television screen

Sheila Marikar | February/March 2019

On a Monday afternoon in December, Sarah Jones, a Tony award-winning playwright and impressionist, sits at a flimsy metal table in Los Angeles’s Grand Central Market, a cavernous food hall hawking a vast array of cuisine: grass-fed lamb, vegan ramen, tacos, acai bowls. Around her, scruffy workers in baseball caps take their lunches next to corporate types in suits. In a city where the car culture promotes a gas-guzzling form of isolation, the market offers an alternative atmosphere: it buzzes with the energy of happenstance meetings.

This is why Jones chose it for the first day of shooting “She the People”, her forthcoming television series which will take on topics like gender, race, sex, power and ethnic identity in much the same way that the chef Anthony Bourdain documented global cuisine. In each episode Jones will travel to a different part of the world, from Amsterdam’s red-light district to the US-Mexico border, drawing these subjects out through the lives of ordinary people. “Every episode is going to put Sarah on the front lines of an issue,” says Justin Wilkes, the president of Imagine Documentaries, which is producing the show.

But Jones is no ordinary interviewer: she’s an impressionist, who morphs between characters seamlessly. Watching her is like observing a master magician at close range, as you try and fail to catch the moment when the trick happens. These transformations make the often dry social issues she tackles in her shows relatable, poignant and hilarious, and have turned Jones into one of America’s most subtle examiners of stereotypes and clichés. That art has defined her stage work; this autumn, TV audiences will be able to enjoy it too.

Before arriving at the market, Jones and her crew shot a brief sequence in a seedy highway underpass. “I can’t say I was outright solicited,” she says, “but there was some interest from a male bystander in my being a lady, alone.” “I had an off-the-shoulder top on,” she adds, rolling her eyes. “So there you go.” Now she is more relaxed. Getting up from the table, she sidles up to a bar, leans over and starts chatting up the two guys manning it. She wanders through the aisles, oo-ing at Mexican candies, ah-ing at an almond butter and goji berry shake, and asking two women slurping ice-cream where they are from and what else they like to eat. “We’re doing a show about all different cultures,” she tells the woman behind a Filipino food stand. “It’s what makes this country great, even if some people don’t understand that.”

Television is a departure for Jones. She spent the 1990s and 2000s doing impressions on New York’s theatre circuit: in a series of solo shows she acted like people who look and sound nothing like her. These performances, which straddled the line between stand-up comedy and social activism, delved into subjects like sex work and immigration through an ever-growing cast of characters. In “Bridge and Tunnel”, her Tony award-winning, Broadway show about the lives of New York’s immigrants, she embodied a hunchbacked Jewish grandmother, a gruff ex-cop and a velvet-voiced Indian doctor. In her most recent show, “Sell/Buy/Date”, she trotted out Chris, a former pimp turned “woke” emcee who pledged to be better to women, “instead of being Weinsteins, you know, Harve and them”.

For more than 20 years, Jones has been tweaking and tuning “her people”. In New York, in the early 2000s, she ran errands wearing a hijab as she developed a Jordanian character, a woman named Habiba, cataloguing the stares of customers at the local grocery store and perfecting her pronunciation. “When she is talking about girls, the way she says the word, I realised it was spelled ‘gez’,” says Jones. “The American way of pronouncing it was getting in the way, so I had to record myself and listen to it over and over again.” When developing a new character, she relies on voice memos recorded on her iPhone and rote observation. “If I’m learning another language that I can’t speak but also can’t read, I’ll have someone speak into a recorder so I can memorise phonetically what they’re saying,” says Jones. “I can feel when my compass is off, if I’m trying to portray somebody and I haven’t really done my homework.”

Jones changes personas with dizzying speed, not only as she is performing but also in real life. “You’ll be on a call with her, and then you’ll start hearing a Jewish grandmother or a guy from the Bronx, and you’ll be like, ‘Who just joined?’” marvels Wilkes. Her facility as a chameleon has won her high-profile fans. “When I think back to performances of hers, I think I remember her surrounded by many other actors,” says Meryl Streep, the Oscar-winning actress who was among Jones’s earliest supporters and produced an off-Broadway version of “Bridge and Tunnel”. “Of course, there was no one else. It is that the people she creates with a scarf, or a posture, or a pair of glasses, become three-dimensional, real, indelible.”

Jones plans to deploy her characters throughout “She the People”, using them as a device during interviews to elicit a different reaction from her subjects than she would if she spoke as herself. They are, Wilkes says, “a conduit to explore the themes of the show”. This is a risky move. Until now, Jones has largely avoided mainstream popular culture, preferring to stick to theatres and performances for philanthropic groups and TED-conference crowds, rather than dumb down her act for mass consumption. Even then, her performances have sometimes drawn criticism, especially from audience members who feel that her black and Latina characters are negative representations. What’s more, the world of popular culture that Jones is wading into today is a far thornier place than the off-Broadway scene that embraced her 20 years ago – before “cultural appropriation”, the act of borrowing elements from a culture that is not one’s own, was something that entertainers got castigated for on social media. In conversation, Jones takes pains to come across as politically correct: she wondered, recently, whether not clarifying her choice of pronouns at the bottom of her email signature made her a bad person. But when she’s working she doesn’t really care who she offends. “Playing around with why people feel a sense of tension, or fear…that’s a dynamic I’m sensitive to. But if the fear is, ‘We need to be presented in the best light because we are compensating for always being perceived in the worst light,’ I’m not going to let that dictate what I do.”

In delving into gender, race, sex and power, “She the People” will open a can of worms. But if anyone can do that without slicing open their finger, it’s Jones.

Born in Baltimore in 1973, Jones presents, as she puts it, as “black from a distance”. Her father identifies as African-American, her mother as mixed; within her family, there are cousins from the Dominican Republic, aunties from the Caribbean, and a grandmother who was a mix of Irish and German-American. “We had both Christians and Jews on my mother’s side of the family,” Jones says. “It’s a long story filled with intrigue and interfaith guilt.” When she was young, her mother instructed her to cross out all the “check your race” boxes on a school form and write in “human”. “You can imagine what the other kids in school thought about that,” Jones says.

The eldest of three sisters, she started inhabiting different personas as a child. Jones’s parents were doctors, although her light-skinned mother frequently got mistaken for a nurse and her dark-skinned father for an orderly. A diverse cast of friends and family would gather in their home, and Jones modified her speech and behaviour based on whoever was in the room. “If you spoke a dialect…I would speak that dialect with you,” she says. “That was a struggle for me,” she adds, “because depending on where I was, I could start to feel like I didn’t have a real self.”

When she was six, her family moved to Washington, DC for her father’s job at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Centre. “Where we lived, people called it Chocolate City, and I was brand new to this all-black context,” says Jones. Her black classmates called her a zebra and scorned her for “talking white”. “I didn’t want my mother to bring me to school,” she says. “I only wanted my father to drop me off because I felt so embarrassed of her, this white-looking, light-skinned person.” Jones says that she and her mother joke that she should write a book called “Are You Together?” because of how many times they got asked that, “as if I were a street urchin that just, like, walked up and started holding a white lady’s hand”.

All this changed when the family moved to New York. There she attended the United Nations International School, where, as Jones puts it, “everybody was a zebra”. “I could date a Danish boy and my Jewish girlfriend could date an Egyptian boy.” Surrounded by people from a variety of backgrounds similar to her own, Jones felt at home.

Gradually she added to her bank of personalities. Travelling around the city, she would observe New Yorkers on the subway. After high school, she went to Bryn Mawr, an all-women liberal arts college in suburban Pennsylvania, where she was introduced to a different breed of white male – the frat guys at the surrounding, co-ed institutions. College cemented her as “a card-carrying feminist”, but her stint in Pennsylvania also brought racial divides back to the fore. Jones recalls applying for a job at a bank off campus and acing the phone interview. “The woman sounded so excited. Then when I got there I was, like, ‘Hi, I’m Sarah,’ and she was, like, ‘What?’” Jones draws back in mock horror. “My insides did not match my outsides for her. If my name had been Laticia Jones, that probably would have been a tip-off.” Jones left her CV on the desk and ran out of the building.

During her sophomore year her parents divorced. Her mother told her that she’d have to take out loans if she wanted to continue her studies. Jones began college intending to go on to law school. “I thought I would write briefs and make lots of money and do great closing arguments with a flourish,” she says. But she invested more energy in writing poetry and going out than in her courses. She and her friends would speed up the freeway to Manhattan at the weekend to attend parties thrown by the rapper Puff Daddy. Between her writing, nightlife and strapped finances, she began to wonder whether a career as a lawyer really made sense. The following summer she dropped out and went back to New York.

Before she started filming “She the People”, Jones was performing the second Los Angeles run of “Sell/Buy/Date”, a solo stage show that explores sex work from myriad perspectives – a Jewish grandmother who stumbles on a porn site, a Jamaican prostitute, a retired New York City cop. The show is set in a university lecture hall in the distant future, where, rather than clicking through a snore-inducing PowerPoint presentation, a professor summons these people to life. For 90 minutes, it was just Jones and a podium, and every time the lights changed, she changed character. At one point, she morphed into a bro at his bachelor party based on the frat guys from Pennsylvania. She shrugged defensively, lowered her voice to a husky, beer-lubricated drawl, and mused on the free will of strippers: “Hey, it’s a free country, if a girl is 18 and wants to be an exotic dancer...” So convincing was her portrayal that I could picture this guy, with his ill-fitting jeans and gelled hair, even while watching a middle-aged black woman on stage. The theatre, part of an LGBT centre in Hollywood, was packed, and Jones received a standing ovation. The show seemed to function as a balm for a liberal crowd frustrated by Donald Trump’s presidency, emboldened by the #MeToo movement and in search of female entertainers to champion.

Jones wrote “Sell/Buy/Date” in 2013, when the NoVo Foundation, a non-profit focused on combating violence against women and funded in part by Warren Buffett, commissioned her to create a show about sex work. Initially Jones had reservations. “I had seen one too many plays that were beautifully executed but that I did not want to recommend to anyone,” Jones says. “Why would I tell you to see this thing that made me want to slit my wrists at the end? My thought was, ‘Is there a way to dive into these ideas and still feel alive, more alive than when you got to the theatre?’”

From the start of her performing career, Jones has thrived on getting inside the head of new characters – and even recreating her own. She began at the Nuyorican Poets Café, an artists’ hangout on the Lower East Side, where she started reading her feminist, rap-inspired poetry in 1996. She wore her hair in dreadlocks under a head wrap in the style of Erykah Badu, a singer, thinking that embracing her African-American heritage would help her get noticed. “I was very blackified all of a sudden,” says Jones. Her work resonated: she won the 1997 Nuyorican Grand Slam, a spoken-word championship, and compiled some of the poems she read there into “Surface Transit” (1998), a solo show about racial and sexual tension in urban America. It featured her earliest characters, among them a Jewish grandmother who has rejected her gay son, a homeless woman, and a young British actress with Caribbean roots vying to get on MTV.

The show was a hit. A review in Variety said that “her ear for spoken language is so fresh you can almost feel her words wriggling in the air like live eels.” It got her noticed: its fans included Gil Scott-Heron and Paul Simon. It also landed her a gig with Equality Now, an international women’s rights group run by Pamela Shifman. In 2000 Shifman commissioned Jones to enliven a campaign to change laws discriminating against women, such as a Japanese law dictating that divorced women could not remarry for at least six months. “Our campaign was, quite frankly, dull and dry and lacked urgency,” says Shifman. Jones created “Women Can’t Wait”, a play in which she portrayed ten women suffering from different injustices, including a Japanese piano virtuoso recovering after a brutal beating from her husband.

Jones’s rising star got her into the VIP section of nightclubs, but the misogynist lyrics of the hip-hop music popular at the time began to bother her – particularly the couplets in the rapper Eminem’s “My Name Is”: “I smoke a fat pound of grass and fall on my ass/faster than a fat bitch/Who sat down too fast/Come here slut!” In 1999 Jones released a rebuttal rap, “Your Revolution”, based on an early poem she recited at the Nuyorican Poets Café. Its refrain – “Your revolution will not happen between these thighs” – was meant as satire, a middle finger to the rap world that Jones once idolised. In 2001 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) sued a radio station for broadcasting her song, citing its “unmistakable patently offensive sexual references” that “appear to be designed to pander and shock”.

“They couldn’t pinpoint which words were indecent,” says Jones. Even now, when she talks about the incident, her voice rises with outrage. “This was a feminist send-up of other lyrics that were already playing on the radio, so I was like, ‘If you’re censoring me, you have to go after Snoop and Dr Dre and every­body else.’ Suddenly I was labelled a pornographic rapper person, when I was on track to be, like, the UN.” Jones fumed over the unfairness of it all, the “Jezebelling of a black woman”. She decided to countersue the FCC, the first popular musician to do so, and railed against the misogyny in any publication that would amplify her voice, including Rolling Stone and the New York Times. Eventually she won the lawsuit; the ruling was overturned.

The controversy raised her profile, and around this time she auditioned for a sketch comedy series on MTV in which she would have played “that Latina girl who has 100 babies and is in the kitchen cooking rice and beans”. Never mind that she doesn’t identify as Latina – she looked the part. She left her audition thinking, “Come on guys, twist that, make it fun, make her the president of the fucking United States if you want to do an interesting comedy bit about a Latina woman.” MTV offered her the job, but she turned them down – a brave move at a time when the network was one of the most influential forces in pop culture. Jones didn’t want to play a character where ethnicity was a perpetual punchline.

“I had that thing of, ‘Oh my God, I’ll never work in this town again’,” she recalls. “People said, ‘You don’t walk away from MTV, you’re crazy, what is wrong with you?’ And I basically walked right into the arms of Meryl Streep.”

Streep heard about Jones through Equality Now and saw her performance of “Women Can’t Wait” in 2000. She attended an early iteration of “Bridge and Tunnel”, Jones’s solo show about assimilation in urban America, and left “astonished”. Streep decided to team up with Allan Buchman, the founder of a theatre group in New York called the Culture Project, to produce the off-Broadway version of the show in 2004.

“That was so exciting, and fulfilling,” Streep says, “to bring the mainstream Broadway audience to experience something so quietly subversive.” All ten characters Jones portrayed in that show have stayed in her repertoire, tweaked and updated to sync with the times. (None of her “people” ever officially retires, though some are put on the back burner and reignited when she deems them necessary.)

Irate audience members sometimes approach her after some shows, accusing her of unfair representation. “I have had a couple of black people and a couple of Latinos say, ‘Why can’t our character be a doctor?’” she says. “That, I put back on them. That’s not my fault.” If she’s holding up a mirror and someone doesn’t like what they see, she sees that as their problem, not hers. In 2005 she performed at a fundraiser in front of what she describes as a conservative crowd. One of the characters she embodied that night was a nurse from Long Island, New York, a descendant of Polish and Italian immigrants who read tabloid newspapers that told her immigrants were raping everybody and coming to steal her job. The nurse suggested that “if the Statue of Liberty could talk today, she would say, ‘That’s enough. No more. If you wanted to come, you should’ve come in earlier.’”

After the show, a woman approached Jones, visibly shaken, and said, “You’re very talented but how come everybody was wonderful except for the one who looked like me?” “That blew my mind,” says Jones. “I pointed to myself and was, like, ‘Well, this hasn’t changed.’” So convincing was her portrayal of this white, immigrant-fearing nurse that the audience member appeared to forget that Jones was a dark-skinned woman. “She felt like every other race was represented in a kind way,” Jones says. “Meanwhile, most of the people in the audience said, ‘Thank you for doing the nurse. I know her. This is the person who complains that people are making spicy food that stinks in the break room.’”   

The Tony Award Jones won for “Bridge and Tunnel” in 2006 opened doors: in 2007, she became a United Nations Goodwill ambassador, which enabled her to research and perform in places as far flung as Ethiopia and Bali. She gave her first TED talk in 2009, squeezing eight of her personas into 21 minutes. The exposure she got from the talk – a YouTube video of it has been viewed more than 1.2m times – put her on the radar of more entertainment-industry notables. Michael Stipe, the frontman of REM, a band, flew her to Los Angeles to perform at the Chateau Marmont, a trendy West Hollywood hotel. Richard Branson, who founded Virgin, invited her to Necker, his private island. She felt uneasy with this celebrity. “I remember thinking, ‘How do people handle this? What is the safe space between fame and artistry?’” At these gigs, she would meet television executives who lured her into development deals that inevitably fell apart. Jones recoiled from the role they most often envisioned for her: the multi-ethnic secretary of the white, male lawyer.  “We weren’t at the moment where we are now. There was none of this explosion of women and people of colour. At that time, I was still the garnish on the plate.”

She moved from New York to LA in 2017 to increase her likelihood of getting meatier roles in film and TV, both in front of the camera and behind the scenes. Jones feels that the times have finally changed. Hopefully. “I don’t just want to be, you know, ‘funny Puerto Rican girl number two’,” she says. “Thank goodness the industry, at its glacial pace, is shifting, so that there is more space for casting someone like me as, maybe, a love interest.”

Back at Grand Central Market, on her first day of shooting “She the People”, she is simply Sarah Jones, mingling with the crowd. She bonds with a Puerto Rican vendor about their shared love of Café Bustelo coffee, chatting in boisterous and perfectly accented Spanish, before turning to her producers, tears in her eyes, and saying, “Can we buy some Bustelo from her? I have money. I know that if I do this with everyone, I won’t have any money.” (Sage advice for anyone working in the arts.)

When the crew takes a break, she says she “missed this research process, this is what I used to spend my time doing before life got in the way”. She worries about how she will balance nuanced portraits of gender and race with the sensationalist tactics that television uses to reel in viewers. The leap from off-Broadway theatre to mass-market television is a big one, and popularity has never been Jones’s style. After all, this is the woman who turned down MTV. “When I watch her, I think, ‘Well, she’s done wonderful things and she’s gotten a lot of attention from people who make a difference,” says Lily Tomlin, an actress and a friend of Jones’s. “I don’t even know if she should have the popularity, it might diminish her or something.” But then she reassures herself: “Her personality will see her through.”

Jones has long talked about her people. This is the chance for the world to meet them.