Tongues Untied

Sarah Jones speaks of the indelible bonds between us all

There’s a brief intermission in “bridge & tunnel,” the latest solo show by the supremely gifted performance artist Sarah Jones, but audience members remain riveted in their seats.

That’s because the intermission is actually part of the show-within-the-show, based on a poetry slam in South Queens, and only the hapless Pakistani host, Mohammed Ali (no jokes, please), takes a breather.

But it’s not an easy one, since Mohammed spends the down time on the phone calming his wife about the fact that federal authorities eyeing him as a suspected terrorist. In an Orwellian twist, speech has become more free for some than for others in post 9-11 America.

In this archly provocative play, Jones, who is of African, European, and Caribbean descent, plays 14 characters from myriad ethnic backgrounds who recite their poetry or perform soliloquies onstage. Without a trace of sentimentality, the play shows the travails of assimilation and racial intolerance in America, as well as revealing common traits some folks would rather ignore.

Jones does not hesitate to play the “green card” to drive home her messages in monologues gleaned from months of interviews with immigrants, many of whom are undocumented, and her own meticulous observations of New Yorkers on the subway.

With just a quick change of jacket or hat, Jones slips easily into different roles. She’s got the accents, mannerisms, and phrasing down pat, and her timing is flawless—truly a tour de force.

Before we realize the show has begun, Jones appears as a homeless woman, who seems to have wandered in off Bleecker Street, to deliver the cell phone and candy wrapper announcement.

The affable Mohammed, an accountant by day, makes lame jokes that only he finds hilarious. He is mighty proud to emcee the Fourth Annual “I AM A POET TOO” gathering, a wacky acronym for “Immigrant And Multiculturalist American Poets Or Enthusiasts Traveling Toward Optimistic Openness.”

We meet an angry young Vietnamese American man whose poem promises: “It won’t fold your shirts but it may air your dirty laundry.” Then there’s Gladys, the President Bush-bashing Jamaican poet/performer/playwright/spoken word artist/actress, who declares “I am my own Nanny,” surely a sly reference to the Jefferson Mays one-man hit now on Broadway.

There’s Juan José, the wheelchair-bound union organizer from California whose wife vanished while attempting to illegally cross the Mexican border hidden in the hollow ceiling of a bus.

The wistful woman from Jordan rhapsodizes about a sensual 11th century poet and the Beatles, and the courage to “wear your words on your sleeve.” A 15-year old, who reads her poem about daffodils, has roots in the Dominican Republic, “where you get the baseball players from,” she explains. There’s also Monique, the Australian-born Brooklynite, who recites a bitter, hysterical love poem called “Asshole.”

One of the most moving participants is Mrs. Ling, a Chinese American who doesn’t have a poem at all, but uses the forum to practice a speech for an immigration hearing. The plea, it turns out, is not for herself but for her daughter’s lesbian lover, who is about to be booted out of the country since the young women cannot legally marry.

Also endearing is Lorraine from Long Island, a bespectacled, elderly Jewish woman of Polish and German descent, who recites a protest poem called “No, Really, Please, Don’t Get Up” and has her own website. She loves America because “We get to decide what happens in our own country. We even get to decide what happens in other people’s countries.”

At nearly 6 feet tall, the beautifully slender, 30-year old Jones is adept at walking the fine line—more like a tightrope, really—between bigotry and celebrating racial diversity. With her skewed stereotypical, loud-but-lovable characters, it’s safe to say she’s watched her share of “The Simpsons.”

This compelling collection of monologues is directed by Tony Taccone, who also directed Jones’ similar 1998 sensation, “Surface Transit.” Meryl Streep, who was awestruck by Jones’ performance several years ago and has since become a mentor of sorts, co-produced the show along with The Culture Project.

A star on the Poetry Slam circuit a few years back, Jones knows a thing or two about the power of self-expression. She was a regular at the East Village Nuyorican Poets Café, where she met her fiancé Steve Colman, who now serves as assistant director for “bridge & tunnel.”

Jones picked up her accents in the halls of the United Nations High School in Manhattan, where she made sport of mimicking friends and mocking teachers. In 1993, she left Bryn Mawr College in her junior year for more creative pursuits in New York City, where she still resides. Amazingly, the motor-mouthed monologist never formally studied acting.

Rumor has it she’s developing a sketch show for Bravo––a la Tracy Ullman—featuring her multiple personalities.

Perhaps Jones herself best sums up her border-breaching artistic vision: “By neighborhood, by circumstance, by chance, and most importantly by our basic human dignity, we are all cosmically, and of course, often comically linked.”

As a refreshing testament to her universal appeal, the audience at the Bleecker Street Theatre was as racially diverse as the motley group of poets courageously portrayed onstage.

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