Sarah Jones: One Woman, Many Faces

Sarah Jones gained wide acclaim after creating and portraying 14 characters in her off-Broadway hit, Bridge and Tunnel. The Tony Award-winning playwright, actor and poet talks about her new project at New York's Lincoln Center and her new role with the United Nations.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

When you sit down to talk with Tony Award winner Sarah Jones, you never know quite what to expect.

(Soundbite of Broadway show, "Bridge & Tunnel")

Ms. SARAH JONES (Tony Award-Winner Actress): (As Rasheed) I know some of y'all ain't really into hip-hop, you know what I saying? But the first way you have know I'm an MC is because I hold the microphone in the official MC posture. Y'all can see that right there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. JONES: (As Rasheed) All right, yeah. And then the second way - the second way is cause, you know what I'm saying y'all. I'm going to say, you know what I'm saying, you know what I'm saying a few more times before I finish this sentence right here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHIDEYA: That was just one of the 14 characters that Sarah created and portrayed in her off-Broadway hit "Bridge and Tunnel." She's had plenty going on of late. The Lincoln Center Theater commissioned Sarah to write a new piece for the stage and she's also working with the United Nations. And she's with us now.

Hey, Sarah.

Ms. JONES: Hello there, Farai.

CHIDEYA: It's good to talk to you. So tell me about this new piece you're working on.

Ms. JONES: Well, I'm really excited about the new piece and one of the most exciting things is kind of feeling it come together in my mind. It's sort of jelling and every time I get to listen to one of the voices from, you know, the show, whether I'm in rehearsal or having some time to spend here with you and the listeners listening to Rasheed, it reminds me that it's all about the character. So it's very character-driven.

And I just met recently with Andre Bishop, the wonderful artistic director of Lincoln Center Theater. And I - all I can tell you is, you know, whether is this for his hair? Or you know, I'm thinking about, oh, this is for people who sort of populates my mind depending on the day. All of them are vying for attention. So I look for some combination of that when I finally hit the stage.

CHIDEYA: I know your husband probably is scared in the middle of the night when you wake up talking in character or something like that.

Ms. JONES: That's definitely true.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. JONES: Just like me, he was a performer and writer in his own - right, Steve Coleman and…

CHIDEYA: And a Tony winner.

Ms. JONES: And a Tony winner himself. But I sometimes feel like I hold the trump card because if we have a really bad argument later if he wants to be romantic, I can always turn around and say, hey, how would you like to be romantic with me?

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHIDEYA: Can you give us any kind of a hint about what the frame is for your new work that you're developing?

Ms. JONES: Well yes. It's definitely going to be a lot more personal and for throughout my experience as a performer and writer, I've definitely been most interested in the vantage points of different, you know, people from different ethnic backgrounds, different economic backgrounds. This is going to be the first time I delved a little bit into some personal space, and it's very, very daunting, but also, as you can imagine, it's in some ways it's a new territory for me. So I'm looking forward to it even though it's quite an undertaking.

CHIDEYA: You come from a very multi-ethnic family yourself and so perhaps that gives you some insight. I just want to play a little bit more from one of your other characters in "Bridge and Tunnel."

(Soundbite of Broadway show, "Bridge & Tunnel")

Ms. JONES: (As "Bridge & Tunnel" character) There are basically fewer career possibilities for people of Jamaican ancestry in this country. One is to become secretary of state.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. JONES: (As "Bridge & Tunnel" character) Another is to take care of children.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. JONES: (As "Bridge & Tunnel" character) But you see, either way is the same thing because you have to run behind the over-privileged baby who can barely form sentences.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHIDEYA: So what about your growing up or your family made you want to create and inhabit these lives that you put on stage?

Ms. JONES: Well, it's interesting, you know. Among the projects I'm working on are some topics and some of the areas where I'm sort of doing more exploration than ever include health in, you know, in sort of a public health sense and in a more direct sense.

You know, we've hopefully all seen the Michael Moore film "Sicko," which really I think, you know, shone such an important light on, you know, where we are as a country. But even looking more broadly globally, we have such incredible technology, and, you know, the ability to, you know, extend people's lives in ways never before seen yet.

You know, we have so many people with terrible health problems across all backgrounds, but in particular, we have ethnic and racial disparities that you know, African-Americans and Latino Americans and other people are facing. And I actually think that in some interesting ways, my parents, both being doctors when I was growing up must have influenced me because the Kellogg Foundation supported a piece that I'm touring with - yeah, in certain places. It's called "A Right to Care" and it basically you know look fat, where we are in health from a multi-ethnic perspective.

And as I was writing, I felt, oh, my goodness. This, you know, this was really my parents' dream of my becoming a doctor like they were. You know, I sort of came about it through a side door, but it's definitely, you know, it makes me think back to my childhood and all of the different voices around my family's table and also that my parents came every night, you know, with my father saying, you know, so and so had a heart attack today and I had to keep him from dying right on my table, and you know, and pass the peas.

CHIDEYA: So finally, you're doing work with UNICEF and Africa. You've got the U.N., Congress, all these different venues. When can we expect to see this Lincoln Center work up here?

Ms. JONES: Well one of the wonderful things about all of these works, whether it's working with UNICEF on violence against children and the piece that I'm performing in that capacity or the Kellogg piece I just mentioned, or, you know, any of the other work, they all sort of feed the kind of germinating seeds in my process.

And I feel like the work that I bring to Lincoln Center is going to borrow elements from all of it - all of my travels. I'm looking forward to going to Kenya soon, Afghanistan, various other places that I'll be so fortunate to get to travel and hear the perspectives of people who we may not see on our evening news or, you know, who we may never encounter here. I'll actually get to travel.

So to be kind of a new twist on the work I was able to do on Broadway with "Bridge & Tunnel," for example, those were my neighbors from Queens and Brooklyn and, you know, all around.

CHIDEYA: Sarah, sadly we must stop. Sarah, thank you so much.

Ms. JONES: Oh, thank you, Farai.

CHIDEYA: Sarah Jones, Tony Award winner, spoke with us from NPR studios in New York.

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