The campus theater is small, austere, and eerily still. The capacity audience sits in silence, their eyes closed, as Sarah Jones leads an exercise in guided meditation. Imagine, she says, an ancestor of yours at the moment he or she arrived in America. “Feel the effects of the journey,” she instructs. “Breathe with that person’s lungs. See if you can feel the ‘you’ within that person’s experience.”
It is, for the mix of students, teachers, and members of the liberal-leaning University of California–Santa Barbara community in attendance, an unexpectedly powerful bit of immersive theater. Afterwards, one man testifies that he connected with an ancestor’s “terrified optimism.” Philip Brandes, a theater critic for the Los Angeles Times, later tells me the exercise caused him to envision his late father’s arrival on Ellis Island—the wind ruffling his hair, the boat rocking on the waves, the Statue of Liberty coming into view. “The mix of apprehension and hope he must have felt facing an unknown future helped me understand him in a way I had never thought about,” Brandes says.
The meditation has a sociopolitical subtext—i.e., critiquing the antipathy felt by so many Americans toward more recent generations of immigrants—but it largely goes unmentioned. A pioneering theater creator, Jones is a fierce fighter for social justice, but she doesn’t proselytize, preferring to craft vivid performances that invite audiences to identify with characters who have different viewpoints and identities. “That’s what I think art can do,” she says later. “It can help people see some aspect of themselves that they haven’t thought about—such as the fact they’re an immigrant, even if they’re 10 generations removed.”
Creativity and social activism have always gone hand-in-hand for Jones, 44, who brings 20-plus distinct characters to life in her one-woman shows. Many of these personalities are social outcasts—people pushed to the margins of society owing to their ethnicity, gender, sexuality, lack of economic resources, or some combination thereof. In Sell/Buy/Date, which is playing at the Geffen Theatre in Los Angeles in February and March following a successful off-Broadway run, she channels characters who work in areas of the sex trade including pornography and prostitution. Brimming with witty lines and droll observations, it is, like her 2006 Broadway hit Bridge and Tunnel, both serious and playful—an example of what Jones calls “joy as resistance.”
The child of an interracial couple—her father is African American, her mother biracial—Jones became politically aware early in life. Jolted by her dad’s stories of growing up in the South, “I was terrified of the Klan as a kid,” she recalls. While bicycling through Boston, one of the cities in which Jones grew up, her father sometimes had to dodge bottles thrown by people who disapproved of his relationship with his lighter-skinned wife. In first grade, she wrote an angry poem about the Reagan administration's insistence that, for school lunches, ketchup could be validly considered a vegetable. It won an award and led to a radio interview: her first media platform, at age six.
Jones’ interest in embodying other dialects and stories was in part a product of her schooling. Starting at the age of 11, she attended the United Nations International School in Manhattan, where she befriended—and observed the accents and mannerisms of—fellow students from literally all around the world. “I never go anywhere and think, ‘You’re a foreigner,’” she says.
Not surprisingly, she finds the very different attitude embodied by the present administration abhorrent. “I’m motivated like never before,” she says. But while she doesn't want to be "holding the megaphone and saying nothing," she is determined to retain a sense of fun and playfulness; for her Playdate podcast, she dips into character to interview creative celebrities like Lily Tomlin and Elizabeth Gilbert. "I'm finding it helpful to hold fast to my sense of curiosity and openness and joy and wonder," she says, "while quaking in my boots at times, and shaking my fists."
Still, her empathy extends to her political opponents. One of Jones’ characters is Hank, whom she created in 1999 when the Ku Klux Klan announced it was holding a rally in New York City, where she resides. Jones calls Hank a “European-American rights advocate.” And yet: “Every bit of instruction he has gotten since he was a little boy has been about how this country is losing its identity to brown interlopers who are ruining everything. Who would you be if that’s all you ever learned?”
While she usually performs at non-profit theaters or at universities—though she has a television project in development that should widen her audience—Jones also seeks out venues “that are not an obvious fit for me.” The UCSB Arts & Lectures audience is, in contrast, with her from the start. Still, she has no interest in pandering to the crowd. Following the personal-ancestor exercise, she takes a jacket off of a nearby coat rack and assumes the role of an aggrieved middle-aged woman, a white American with a chip on her shoulder who insists that “the people who complain the loudest get special treatment.”
It gradually dawns on the attendees: This is a portrait of an aggrieved Trump supporter. After spending a couple of minutes as the character—who is modeled in part on a nurse who once worked in her mother’s office—Jones returns to her own voice and presents the audience with a challenge: Can you identify with that woman?
The response is, predictably, less than enthusiastic. But at Jones’ urging, a few people hesitantly address the crowd in the character’s voice, tapping into her sense of feeling unseen and unheard. This pleases Jones. “I’m a little uncomfortable [channeling her],” she admits to the audience, “but I’m really committed to setting aside my judgment long enough for another person’s perspective to seep into me. I believe this is how to begin how to understand how we got to this disconnect between ourselves and ‘the others.’ I’m stubbornly hopeful.”