Sarah Jones: What A Character!

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A woman of many worlds, Sarah Jones -- actress, playwright and poet -- is also a woman of many roles and many voices.

They all can be found in her critically acclaimed one-woman show, "Bridge and Tunnel."

"These people all have stories," say Jones of the characters she portrays. "Some are very private about it, but they will share."

The play is about a group of newly arrived immigrants who trade stories about their struggle to make it across the bridges and tunnels of New York City -- their quest to make it in America.

And more than anything else, what they all have in common is Sarah Jones. Even on a casual stroll through her New York neighborhood, Jones keeps her ears open to the voices of the street.

"I started hearing these voices from the time I was little," says Jones. "I was able to, I think, hear the distinctions between even my relatives speaking. The unique kinds of, you know, little figurative language."

It's one thing to mimic voices, but Jones seems to hear the intellectual and emotional voice of others.

"I feel very connected at a fundamental level to every other person I've ever met," says Jones. "I know that it sounds really hokey and strange, but it's a familial relationship to the true sense of that. The 'human family' to me really is a concept that I live with every day."

And as dysfunctional as that family can be, Jones sees "Bridge and Tunnel" as a way to connect people and promote understanding -- one person at a time.

Jones becomes a Chinese mother learning to accept her gay daughter. She becomes a Mexican-American lamenting lost love. The actress can transform into a Haitian immigrant writing a poem to a real estate agent who's preventing her from realizing the American dream -- a home of her own. Jones takes on the identity of a Jewish grandmother who finds that writing poetry lowers her cholesterol. And, she plays a Pakistani immigrant under investigation for no other reason than his heritage.

"I feel so connected to these characters, and they are so alive," says Jones. "I talk about them in the third person. And for me, they have to live out a life on stage every night that is true."

Jones and her chorus of characters are the talk of New York. At the play's opening last month, it was clear that Sarah Jones had arrived.

One of her biggest fans is one of the show's producers -- actress Meryl Streep.

"I looked at [Jones], I thought, 'Ohhh, a member of the tribe,'" says Streep. "We're in the same tribe."

Streep may be the high priestess of that tribe: actors whose performances are more than skin deep; performers who immerse themselves in the characters they play.

Streep's remarkable range has earned her a record 13 Oscar nominations. And she believes 29- year-old Jones has the potential to follow suit.

"When I first saw her, I thought that I'd never seen anybody who had that deep understanding of other people," says Streep. "A lot of actors have that desire to get into the heart of someone else, to walk in their shoes … What she has is sort of a larger sensibility; a compassionate understanding of how to present that to the world in a very eloquent and hilarious energetic smart way."

Much of that comes from Jones' own life experience. She grew up in Washington and New York. Her parents were doctors, but divorced when she was in college -- leaving her financially strapped and unable to finish school.

"I was crestfallen because I was going to take over the world … become a big lawyer and get in to international affairs," says Jones. "I wanted to be involved in foreign policy in some way. And use this mouth of mine in the justice system internationally."

Instead, Jones turned inward and created a world of her own.

She wrote poetry and character sketches and began performing at small clubs. But she didn't really make it until tragedy struck: the death of her 18-year-old sister Naomi, who was experimenting with heroin. The lost of her sister changed Jones' life forever.

"Losing a loved one at any time in your life is something that, you know, just causes this indescribable pain," says Jones. "You can't even grieve for that person in a way that you can help anybody else understand. Losing her was, I think, the single most profound experience of my life.

"I think it's fair to say that her voice being silenced means for me that there is, a kind of, contribution to that chorus we were talking about. That people won't hear unless I make sure I give voice to it."

Jones has always mixed her art with activism. Five years ago, she raised her voice against rap music's exploitation of women by writing a poem called "Your Revolution."

The poem put Jones on a collision course with the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC declared the work obscene and banned it from radio play.

"The FCC never actually told me what was indecent about the poem," says Jones. "Can you believe that? So they could slap a fine on the radio station, get me in a whole lot of trouble. My name was out there. People were thinking I'm a pornographic rapper. I'm a proud card-carrying feminist."

To clear her name, Jones sued the FCC and won. The ban was lifted. But that's not what she wants to be known for.

Right now, she's famous and happy for all the right reasons. Her success has led to new opportunities. She's developing a television show with her fiancé -- writer Steve Coleman. They'll be married this summer.

"I'm elated. I'm exhausted. But, I guess, that's the way you want to be if you have to work hard. You want to do what you love. And, that's what I'm doing."

"Bridge and Tunnel" is a hit, and there's a good chance it will move to Broadway in the fall.

For Jones, "Bridge and Tunnel" is another step forward in a life that already has plenty of character.
  • Rome Neal

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