As a student at the United Nations International School in New York, Sarah Jones found that her knack for mimicry was a boon to her classmates. Friends who didn't feel like going to class would have her call the school nurse and impersonate their mothers, an artifice she could easily manage regardless of whether the mother's accent was South African, Indian, or German. It's a gift that has served her well as a spoken-word performer in the Nuyorican scene and now in her phenomenal one-woman show Surface Transit, which has been extended at the Berkeley Rep through June 1.
Surface Transit, much like fellow Nuyorican alumna Hanifah Walidah's Straight Black Folks' Guide to Gay Black Folks, traces the lives of eight characters who are connected in some way. Something is definitely going right in New York in the spoken-word scene: Jones shares with Walidah the distinction of being largely self-taught as an actor and writer, yet both women are exemplary performers. Jones' characters -- men and women, old and young -- are fully realized, sympathetic, and believable, from their accents to the way they use their bodies. Jones is a keen observer of human behavior and language, and her details ring with authenticity -- the care with which a woman braids her daughter's hair, a would-be actress' braying laugh, the way a man holds a bum leg stiffly away from his body to make himself comfortable on a bar stool.
It's difficult to talk about a show like this without referencing other people's work. The one-person show, where a single performer enacts a handful of characters, has a long history, especially in New York. It's a good way for a writer/performer to try out new material and show their range. Eric Bogosian, before he started writing multiple-actor plays, created several one-man shows because they were cheaper to produce than plays with a full cast. The format is also more flexible than that of a more traditional play -- parts can be added, subtracted, or updated without changing the work's overall structure. In the case of something like Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues or Lily Tomlin's The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, the monologues can even be delivered by different actors, budget and time permitting.
Unlike Bogosian's characters, who are often crass, crude, and deeply unlikable, even as they fascinate the audience, Jones' characters have a more complicated blend of sympathetic and distasteful qualities. Unlike Tomlin's, they show a broader range of backgrounds, although they're all linked in some way -- the young Russian widow works for the elderly Jewish lady, whose son serves on the force with the Italian-American cop, who in turn puts the moves on the English actress, and so on. Jones' manifestation of these characters and their language is impeccable, from the way Pasha struggles with English to Rashid's creation of a support group for people trying to break the MC habit. Jones addresses painful issues of race, gender, and class with sensitivity, humor, and razor-sharp accuracy. Her characters wrestle with what it means to be biracial, homeless, or left behind in some way. Some of them are very angry and sometimes frightening people, but they still have something we recognize or can identify with, which makes their racism or homophobia that much more dramatic. And they're also often funny in their truthfulness, especially the precocious Keisha Rae with her new version of "The Revolution Will Not be Televised" and Mrs. Levine, who tells her street-smart grandson that "No, I am not going to call you Funkmaster Shirofsky."
Like Tomlin's Search, Surface Transit opens with a snappy street person taking the stage and questioning the audience's perception of her lot. Unlike Tomlin's innocuous Trudy, however, Jones' Ms. Lady has a gritty, political edge. The rather fanciful Trudy is in league with alien observers; Ms. Lady is in league with the downtrodden. For example, she's not a big fan of "Rudy Mussolini." "I might be sad, but I ain't got amnesia," she remarks pointedly about his 9/11-inspired canonization by the press.
The second character, a harried Russian immigrant trying to get her daughter ready for school, arrives to the strains of the Barney theme. Pasha would really like to move out of Flatbush, where her daughter is called a zebra or an Oreo cookie; she also misses her late husband (powerfully yet gently represented by a sweatshirt), and worries about her child being turned against her. Pasha is an intriguing character because we rarely see her like; here Jones reveals her powerful observational skills. More than Ms. Lady, Pasha sets the tone for what's to come: real, complex individuals versus the slick, simplified characters we see too often on television or film (or, sadly, on stage.)
Pasha gives way to her employer, Mrs. Levine, who will be familiar to anyone with an old Jewish granny. Sweet yet tough, she holds an unfortunate set of prejudices about the world, revealed through a phone conversation with a survey-taker. Mrs. Levine gives way in turn to gangly, uncertain Sugar, auditioning on a sound stage in front of an unseen producer. Here Jones skillfully lambastes MTV and the whole reality series craze, as her British-Caribbean character, tired of being offered parts in movies like "Hoochies in the Hood Parts One, Two, and Three," desperately tries to win a slot on "Seven Immigrants, a Curbside, and a Kayak." Sugar's just too real for reality TV, though; she keeps saying the wrong thing and telling the wrong stories, including the one that's probably the reason the Rep is discouraging people from bringing their kids; it involves an ugly scene with a man who believes that "black woman equals freaky bitch-slut-whore."
Later we meet that man -- and a couple of others -- all as convincingly portrayed as the women, if a little spooky. Joey is a cop suspended for using unreasonable force against a gay man he was taking into custody, and in a revealing session with a psychologist we hear and see the things we don't want to believe people are still capable of saying and thinking. Joey references the Bible but doesn't know it; explains that homosexuals have a fluid dripping onto their brain; and insists that he's not hostile when he clearly is. "Pencil me in for never," he shouts at the shrink about scheduling another appointment.
For all his bluster, Joey is out of his league when he meets Ol' Boy, the smooth-talking representative of a white supremacist group. Ol' Boy wants to set the record straight: his organization isn't like those "old guys" (the Klan). His is not a "white hate group," but a "white love group." "We promote the love of white people for the sake of whiteness," he explains to Joey in a bar. Where Joey's misled fire is frightening, Ol' Boy's coolness is even worse, exuding menace and conviction in equal parts.
A childhood act of Ol' Boy's has deeply influenced young hip-hop activist Rashid, who now leads AA-styled meetings for people "jonesing for just one more verse." "Biggie is dead, Eminem is white, and it's not going to happen for you," he insists, before leading the group in his own take on the Serenity Prayer that begins, "Shit is mad hectic, yo." Versifying is verboten but straight-up poetry is still acceptable, and Rashid lays down a scorching indictment of American consumerist culture and the way it holds black folk down that should get people thinking. Thinking almost as much as "Your Revolution," delivered at a bus stop by whip-smart young poet Keisha Rae. "Your Revolution," incidentally, got Jones in trouble with the FCC when she recorded it and tried to get it radio airplay; in a surprising turn, she fought the FCC and won. It's a triumphant conclusion, delivered by a young woman as vibrant and real as the other seven characters Jones effortlessly brings to life in this must-see show.
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