The Astonishing Sarah Jones' Surface Transit

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:56

    Surface Transit By Sarah Jones

    Childs gets away with this little oversight largely because of her show's infectious ebullience and earnestness. As we know all too well, identity has become a battleground today, both in society and in theater. The safe stability Viveca seeks (and purportedly finds) is widely considered a naive fiction; chameleonesque, actorly behavior qualifies as a profound subject and social paradigm in itself; and a whole genre of solo performance has blossomed in the spirit of making sense of all the upheaval and confusion. The genre I refer to might be called "quasi-documentary," and it involves single actors performing extraordinarily acute impressions of broadly familiar characters (fictional and not) who are extremely different from the actors and who are chosen to make pungent points about the messy, fleshy realities of "difference." Performers as diverse as Anna Deavere Smith, Marc Wolf, John Leguizamo, Danny Hoch and the young, not-yet-commodified Whoopi Goldberg have all traveled this territory, and it's now being explored by a brilliant newcomer: Sarah Jones.

    Jones is 25. According to her press materials, she has been performing around New York's hiphop club circuit since she dropped out of Bryn Mawr. (Money ran short in the family after her sister became ill; she reportedly later attended Hunter College, where I teach, but I never met her.) The product of a mixed marriage, she grew up in numerous cities on the East Coast as her father moved around in the military, and she's obviously as familiar as Childs is with black/white shape-shifting and the world's nasty epithets for it ("zebra," "oreo"). The difference is, this flinty, streetwise-feminist and winner of the 1997 Nuyorican Poets Cafe Grand Slam Championship hasn't an ounce of Childs' bubbliness. Tall, strongly slender, with a severely beautiful face and a cascade of thickly bunched black hair gathered high and tight, she is the sharpest and most accomplished solo impressionist I've seen since Danny Hoch (who, as it happens, is the producer of her show).

    Surface Transit is a collection of eight character vignettes, and it begins, unfortunately, with one that sets up the wrong tenor for the evening. Jones enters (and leaves at the end) as a toothless old homeless woman whose decrepitude she can't quite pull off and whose orientation seems funny at first, creating an expectation for a series of broadly drawn, comedic characters. The more genuine humor behind all the other characters is the product of her ability to communicate real compassion and pathos and see through types to the subtle particularity in each. Her orientation radically shifts in this direction within minutes of her next scene as Pasha, a Russian immigrant and widow of a black American, who speaks with brittle courage to her daughter while doing cornrows in her blonde hair. The precision of Jones' Russian accent and the jarring contrast between her self-confidence and statuesque beauty and Pasha's heartsick determination and fragile humility seize attention like a public secret.

    All the characters in the 90-minute piece, directed by Gloria Feliciano, are fictional New Yorkers whose lives turn out to be linked in distant or intimate ways, and this linkage reads as a sort of sociocultural round dance similar to the sociosexual one in Arthur Schnitzler's Reigen (La Ronde). The next character, Lorraine Levine, for instance, is the elderly, narrow-minded and bigoted Jewish woman Pasha cares for, who is capriciously thinking of firing her and who fills time by making mischief with various lies and half-truths over the phone. Mrs. Levine is a repellent figure who comes so close to stereotype that she borders on offensiveness, and the same is true of Joey, a deactivated Italian-American cop introduced later, who speaks in the crudest terms to his psychiatrist about his violent homophobia.

    In these cases too, though, it's Jones' precision that matters. The meticulousness she brings to Mrs. Levine's exact manner of coughing, cackling and handling the phone, or Joey's belligerent way of sitting, holding his neck and spitting out his copious ignorance as expertise (he's in a rage over the "loss" of his best friend?Mrs. Levine's son?to the "illness" of homosexuality), ensures that the actress' investment in the characters seems far deeper than stereotyping. Indeed, the characters closest to Jones herself?the ones written with greatest originality and acted with the most affection and sympathy?are more poignant and powerful for being surrounded by nemeses. Sugar Jones, for instance, is a black, British, unemployed actress who becomes imprudently emotional while narrating a past sexual assault during an audition for a "real-life" tv show called SICK (Seven Immigrants, a Campsite, and Kayak). When it turns out that her assailant was Joey, both her humanity and his come off, perversely, as fuller, more understandable.

    Similarly, when Jones gently lampoons a young recovering rapper named Rashid, who relapses into marvelous hiphop rhymes while leading a meeting of "the reformed MC wannabe-Junior Mafia revolutionary new Black Panther society of Hunter College," she is setting him up for a contrast with his girlfriend, Keisha Ray, that will cut two ways. Strong-willed and self-confident Keisha Ray, tired of fending off predatory males while waiting for a bus, launches into a magnificent feminist response to Gil Scott-Heron's "The revolution will not be televised": "your revolution will not happen between these thighs/the real revolution/ain't about booty size/the Versaces you buys/or the Lexus you drives..." In the end, the two hiphop poems, male and female, are complemented and strengthened by each other, so that neither his anti-commodity machismo nor her patriarchy-popping hubris can read as narrow, parochial or naive.

    Jones has set up a fascinating and astonishingly risky project here, of self-definition by opposition. She meticulously occupies the flattering and unflattering corpora of everyone in an imagined circular world that is violent and racist but also humane, beautiful and estranged in every direction by (and this is the startlingly hopeful moment) only one degree of separation. This company of faithfully represented Others is all the more moving for the skill and effort required to perform it live, six times a week?how much less powerful the whole thing would be as a bunch of one-time "takes" caught on tape or film!?and the sensibility that emerges is that of a judicious and compassionate observer whose sophistication comes, blessedly, not from any packaged attitude but from her own wide-open eyes.

    P.S. 122, 150 1st Ave. (9th St.), 477-5288, through Aug. 26.

    When They Speak of Rita By Daisy B. Foote

    To answer the obvious question right away: no, I don't think Primary Stages would ever have produced Daisy Foote's When They Speak of Rita if her father weren't the Pulitzer- and Oscar-winning author Horton Foote. She's had several regional productions of her plays, but her brand of amiable, emotionally muted realism just isn't the sort of thing one sees these days either at Primary Stages or any of New York's other principal new-play venues. It's possible that rarity has been her big break, however, perhaps allowing the work to come off as a refreshing anomaly. The show?directed by the elder Foote (at age 84) and starring Daisy's older sister Hallie?has been extended to an open-ended run.

    Daisy Foote writes about small-town New Hampshire (where she grew up) in a generous and modest spirit similar to the way her father has long written about smalltown Texas (where he grew up). She has a fine ear for the gentle rhythms of utterance and evasion among ultra-polite, working-class people, and a sure handle on their psychology. The problem, for me, is that she writes as if the last several waves of feminism never happened. The title character of Rita is a discontented housewife who creates a minor scandal by running off with her teenage son's best friend, only to return scarcely happier and take up the same self-abnegating life she led before. Hallie Foote is excellent in this role, and several other cast members are first-rate as well. I had to check my program during the show, though, to make sure the story was really set in "the present" and not 1975, and in the end I didn't believe it.

    Primary Stages, 354 W. 45th St. (betw. 8th & 9th Aves.), 333-4052.