Inspiring People

Tony Award Winning Playwright, Actor and Poet, Sarah Jones

Sarah Jones
Sarah Jones is a Tony Award® winning playwright, actor, and poet. Her multi-character solo shows include Bridge & Tunnel, which was originally produced Off-Broadway by Oscar-winner Meryl Streep, and went on to become a critically acclaimed, long running smash-hit on Broadway.

Jones' career has taken her from a sold-out run at The Kennedy Center to tours of India, Europe and South Africa to performances for such audiences as the United Nations, members of the U.S. Congress and the Supreme Court of Nepal. Her multicultural cast of characters has always been a reflection of her diverse audiences.

A proud Queens, New York native, Sarah attended the United Nations International School and Bryn Mawr College where she was the recipient of the Mellon Minority Fellowship, then returned to New York and began writing and competing in poetry slams at the Nuyorican Poets Café. There she developed her first show, Surface Transit, which was presented at The American Place Theatre and PS122. Her next piece, Women Can't Wait! was commissioned by Equality Now to address the human rights of women and girls. A subsequent commission by the National Immigration Forum yielded Waking the American Dream, the inspiration for Bridge & Tunnel. Most recently, Jones has been commissioned by the WK Kellogg Foundation for a piece entitled A Right to Care, which tackles themes of inequality in health.

Jones has also received grants and commissions from Lincoln Center Theater, The Ford Foundation, and theater honors including an Obie, a Helen Hayes Award, two Drama Desk nominations, HBO's US Comedy Arts Festival's Best One Person Show Award, and an NYCLU Calloway Award in recognition of Jones as the first artist in history to sue the Federal Communications Commission for censorship. The lawsuit resulted in reversal of the censorship ruling, which had targeted her hip-hop poem recording, "Your Revolution." A regular uncensored guest on public radio, she has also made numerous TV appearances on HBO, NBC, ABC, CBS, PBS, CNN, and in her own special, "The Sarah Jones Show," on Bravo. Jones lives in New York with her creative partner and husband Steve Colman.

It was very early one morning that I received an email from a young man that I had featured in Dana Delivered. His name is David Bradley. David, who ultimately lost his battle against a rare form of stomach cancer, was one of the most courageous people that I have had the honor of knowing. David had seen Sarah's show on Broadway. He thought she was amazing and wondered if I had or would interview her. This conversation with Sarah is a result of David's request and a testament to the kind of person that Sarah Jones is.

DR: Tell me about your life and about your work.

SJ: I have been a professional artist for almost nine years now.

I am amazed to think that it has been almost nine years since I was able to quit my "real job". I have been performing, mostly in theater doing one person shows that are very much informed by humanitarian values and my idea of what a democratic America could look like and also what a democratic global community could look like.

I am an African American and a woman with a multi-cultural family background so I am very interested in talking about people of color and how their rights are affected by, not only our history, but how we live today. How are women's rights and the rights of immigrants and working class people - people in general who face a lot of marginalization - how do we get our stories into the mainstream so that we can be included as part of the human family?

DR: What is the source of your inspiration?

SJ: I can't identify just one...

One source of inspiration is people; all of the people with whom I have had the fortune and sometimes the misfortune to interact with over the course of my life. Every kid I meet at a school performance, every person that I have met who is talented or has distinguished themselves in some way in spite of great challenges and obstacles...

I have been lucky enough that I have been able to perform my own work, work that I have written. I was inspired to begin writing because I was exposed to a lot of poetry when I was a kid. Some of the poets that I was exposed to were Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Gwendolyn Brooks and Maya Angelou -African Americans who were working at a time when this country had far more tangible obstacles of Jim Crow or slavery. I guess I am deeply aware of people overcoming obstacles through art and their ability to find a path for themselves and find their own definition of greatness.

I guess I am inspired by people.

Bridge & Tunnel: Broadway's U.N.-Doing

Play One for the brand-new Broadway year has a cast of one, although you could have conceivably missed that fact from the way Sarah Jones fragments into multi-cultured characters and bounces them off the walls of the Helen Hayes Theatre, where on Jan. 27 her solo show, Bridge & Tunnel, settled in for a limited run through March 12.Keeping up with the Joneses is quite an undertaking, given the global net she has thrown out. There are 14 distinct individuals on view, and they crazily criss-cross boundaries of age, gender, ethnicity. The stage is a world, to reverse Shakespeare a bit, and the 32-year-old monologist is comfortable in every corner of it - turning on a dime from a homeless urban usher to a Pakistani emcee who is as funny as an accountant (which he also is) to a worldwide procession of minority groups who step up to the mike to have their say.

We are at a poetry jam in a drab little neighborhood cabaret in Queens. Streams of multicolored Christmas lights stretch out from the stage in an act of desperate merriment, and the banner in the center confounds us with the message I.A.M.A.P.O.E.T.T.O.O. (which is pronounced "I am a poet, too"). The bill of fare includes a stooped Eastern-European Jewish woman, a disabled Mexican-American union organizer, a Jordanian woman with a memory of The Beatles, a Haitian-American social worker, a Jamaican performance artist, a Chinese-American mother, a Vietnamese-American hiphop poet.

Meryl Streep, who knows a thing about accents (and has earned an unprecedented 14 Oscar nominations without repeating an accent), quite naturally fell in love with Bridge & Tunnel and produced it at 45 Bleecker where it ran for a sold-out seven months. For Broadway, she has backed back a bit and left the producing to others, content with the role of lead cheerleader. Hers is the first quote of a contented customer to make the ads ("If there is one show you should see on Broadway, it's Sarah Jones' gift to New York!").

The vibes were mutual, according to Jones, who was understandably tired but blissed out about her first official night on Broadway. "I had a wonderful time," she admitted. "I felt like I was surrounded by friends and family and, in the purest sense, New York-you know what I mean? I just felt New York. That whole New York energy was there tonight.

"Anyone who is a live performer has those transcendent moments where there is some kind of agreement between the performer and the audience. I felt like I walked into a kind of understanding this evening. I walked out, and there was just an understanding we were going to participate. It didn't feel like a one-person show. It felt like a 601-person show."

Also racking up a Broadway debut was Tony Taccone, who directed the dynamo. "I'd say directing Sarah Jones is a little bit like managing the Yankees: You get out of their way and let 'em play. She's really got such astonishing gifts, such strong instincts, such unique talents, my job is a little different with her than it would with a normal actor."

And did he feel a little ganged-up-on by the fact that Jones was also the author of the piece? "Sure," he conceded, "but she's also very open. She's one of the most open people I've ever met. She's hungry for feedback. She always wants notes. She's very available and interested in hearing what the outside eye has to say so it has been a great collaboration. One of the reason she's such a transformative personality is that you can't find Sarah in the piece. You just see these characters, and you fall in love with them." Streep's first exposure to Jones was at an Equality Now benefit held at the United Nations. That experience-and the fact that Jones is a graduate of The United Nations International School-conspired to give Broadway its first U.N. opening night party.

The post-show supper was held in the spacious fourth-floor Delegates Dining Room, which plays beautifully at night, overlooking the East River with Brooklyn blinking on the distant horizon. The spare, spread-out area really does look like the room where Philip Ober is fatally stabbed right in front of Cary Grant in Hitchcock's North by Northwest.

Of course, getting to the room was an interesting ordeal, with first-nighters queuing in coagulated clumps for a series of security checks. "What a melting pot!" cracked one seasoned first-nighter, seeing all the usual suspects in endlessly undulating lines. Another wag advised James Naughton not to bring up "the Willy Brandt" thing from last season.

Naughton is in a musical frame of mind these days. The Naughton Family Singers (him, son Greg, daughter Keira) are set for an American Songbook gig Feb. 25 at the Allen Room at Columbus Circle. Then, the two-time Tony winning bread-winner will press on solo with an engagement at Feinstein's at the Regency, starting toward the end of May.

"Sex and the City"'s Kim Cattrall and Angels in America's Tony Kushner either didn't make it through the security clearance or didn't try, but they were at the theatre, cheering.

Kushner could find himself Oscar-nominated on Tuesday for co-authoring Steven Spielberg's Munich, and he's already deep into Screenplay Two-an original based on an incident that actually happened to the young Eugene O'Neill. "Jack Nicholson was a really great O'Neill, but he'd be too old to play him as a 23-year-old. I should watch his performance again, but Reds is not available on DVD. I want to find out why."

He hasn't titled his new screenplay yet. "It has, like, eight titles, and I haven't settled on one yet. I had a wonderful time working on Munich, but I'm still going to do plays. In fact, I have a new play in the wings now-and a new musical. Next, in the park this summer, I'm doing Mother Courage and Her Children with Meryl"-and with his Caroline, or Change.

DR: What is one of the wisest things that anyone has ever said to you?

SJ: One of the wisest things that anyone has ever said to me is also the title of a book.

I used to perform a lot at the Nuyorican Poet's Café on the Lower East Side of New York and Miguel Algarin is one of the founders. He is a writer and a poet; a Puerto Rican American Nuyorican poet. I say Puerto Rican because, even though Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States, there is a struggle there for the people to have their rights honored...Miguel is a very talented Puerto Rican writer and the title of one of his books is Love is Hard Work. It is such a deceptively simple sounding idea but it is so true -

Love is hard work!

DR: What does that mean to you?

SJ: I think about the love that I have for my work or family members or friends or people who I want to create relationships with...the love that I have for the fundamentals of an art format or the love that I have for the people in my life or still loving my work even when it is hard to get on stage because I am having a rough day - that love takes a lot of effort. It is not easy but it is about a commitment. It's about persevering through the hard moments.

Life is often a struggle and that is where the love comes in.

DR: Yes.

What I love about what you are saying is that -

I am sure that when people look at someone like you, someone who has done what you have done, someone who has achieved the level of success that you have, they may be tempted to think that it was easy somehow. Or when people consider a couple that has been happily married for years and years, the tendency might be to think that that couple has an effortlessly great marriage. I think that people have a tendency to look at certain people who have something good, and believe that perhaps those people have something that others don't have, something special, rather than the fact that they have done the work.

There is work that goes into anything that is worth having. That is what I love about what you are saying.

SJ: I totally agree with you! Miguel said it, "Love is hard work". I wish I had said it...

DR: What do you hope that people say about you when you are not around?

SJ: I hope that they can identify on some level with me or with some experience that I have had.

Part of what I share with the people that I admire most is that they share. They are generous and willing to be vulnerable. You were just talking about things seeming easy for people -

I don't want to be around someone for whom everything seems so easy to the degree that they are not even living in the same world as the rest of us.

I want for a lot of people to be able to identify with my experience as I express it and hopefully to be able to find a little bit of joy in that connection. I always find joy in having those, what does Oprah call them - "Aha moments", when I can recognize my own experience in someone else's or gain inspiration from someone else's experience.

DR: What do you believe most to be true?

SJ: I hate to be repetitive but -

Love is Hard Work!! (Laughs)

That's it! That is really true and I apply that to so many things. I just heard Cornell West saying that Martin Luther King is not some icon that rose out of a vacuum but rather he is part of a long tradition that produced people like Cornell West put it Martin Luther King is a wave in an ocean of activism and hope and even after death his ideas, Gandhi's ideas, remain to spur other people into action.

As I think about Martin Luther King and the love that it took him...One of the titles of one his collections of essay's is called The Strength to Love. It's more in that same vain, that love is not some mythical fairytale kind of thing but that love is work. It really is hard work and that means that even as we look around the world as it is now and are unsatisfied with the suffering that so many people are enduring and the injustice that we know is part of so many peoples' daily lives, we can apply this idea of love and hopefully have a long term view...

"The arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice"

DR: Is there something that you want that you don't have?

SJ: Yes!

I don't have kids yet and I know that I want them at some point in the future. I am confident that I will not have them until it is time to have them and that if my clock runs out before it is time to have them then that is alright too.

I am thirty three now and I listen to other women "Oh! I am thirty five now...I'm thirty three...I am thirty six..." panicking about having kids. I am really working at having it be alright, that whatever is supposed to happen with me and kids is alright.

So far that is one thing that I don't have that I want - a child of my own.

DR: Do you ever get disappointed with yourself?

SJ: Oh yeah! Are you kidding?

I work really hard on a daily basis as an artist and as a human being just to remind myself that I have to be patient with myself and that I have to treat myself the way that I would treat this child that were talking about, who I have not had yet. I have to encourage myself and know that when I get down or disappointed that everybody is in process.

Yes I get disappointed with myself. Absolutely!

There are times when I am my worst critic. I will read a hundred reviews about my work and they can all be great but I will focus on the one that....

I have a little perfectionism streak that I am working to get over so that I can enjoy my life more and not be such a workaholic. I definitely go through disappointments but I love the idea of reminding yourself that you should treat yourself like a precious child.

DR: Do you have heroes?

SJ: I have lots of heroes; too many to name.

You know, if you get on a bus or a subway and notice the people who you know are nodding off on the train because they have to work two jobs and they can barely get health care for their kids but they are still able to put a smile on their faces - those are heroes...

DR: Amen to that...

A hundred years from now what do you want to be remembered for?

SJ: I want to be remembered for making people pause for a moment to think about what is special about themselves because, hopefully, they saw a little bit of themselves reflected in what I do.

I also hope that people think about the idea that:

Laughter is a deceptively powerful tool.

If you can make people laugh, really laugh then you have done something because when that mouth is open and laughing -

an open mind can't be far behind.

Thanks Sarah!

Sarah Jones's Aha! Moment

(As seen in O Magazine)

As a playwright and performer trying to make it without losing my integrity, I've had plenty of experienced with disappointment. My small-venue, one person shows -- in which I played characters of both sexes and various ages and races -- won me awards and accolades, but no opportunties to reach the next level. Bigger theatre producers wanted to market me as something I wasn't. Network executives would say, "Gosh, you're so talented, we don't know what to do with you." They'd usually offer me a spot on some uninspired sketch comedy show. When the meetings betan to wear on my self esteem, I reluctantly accepted one of these jobs. At firrst the excitement distracted me from my fers of "selling out" -- limo rides, celebrity parties, what's ot to love? But really set in quickly as the mostly male writers churned out scripts that belittled women and brimmed with broadly drawn sterotypes and cheap gags. I quit before the first taping and settled back into my solo shows, performing for everyone from dignitaries to the incarcerated. It was deeply fulfilling, but I often experienced pangs of doubt, wondering how it would have felt to really make it. An unexpected encounter answered my question.

As emcee at a benefit for Equality Now (an international women's rights groups), I met Meryl Streep, who is a great humanitarian. She invited me to breakfast soon after, where she agreed to produce my off-Broadway show Bridge & Tunnel. Sitting across from perhaps the most talented person in Hollywood, I realized taht I had made it, and I had gotten there by doing what I believed in. A few red carpets later, I'm still no starlet. I'm a palywright and performer working with people I've always admired, and discovering that they admire me too -- because I too the hard road and I made it.
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