Behold the paradox of the Nuyorican Poets, an achingly familiar ’90s cultural trope: If you rail against the establishment with enough cutting-edge righteous anger, then maybe someone will buy your screenplay. Now behold 25-year-old solo performer and 1997 Grand Slam winner Sarah Jones, cutting short a cell-phone conversation with her director, Gloria Feliciano, as we tumble into La Bonbonniere, a bustling, shabby-chic West Village diner. “This is the scariest thing you will see me do,” she announces, hoisting a datebook the size of a cinderblock onto the table. Then she gabs with a friendly and delirious old woman in the next seat. Jones knew her from her days living at the Westbeth. The lady insists on taking a photo of us. “This is where I get my characters from,” Jones confides in one breath. Then in the next notes: “I was here once and sat between Drew Barrymore and Uma Thurman.” Jones is kind of a character herself.
What sets Sarah Jones apart from your average poet-mogul, however, is her mastery of the mix. She revels in human contradiction, particularly the irony of searching for a politics of identity in a realm where identity and image whirl in an unstable pas de deux. In the subway car full of folks she inhabits in Surface Transit: More Sketches of Ordinary People, now running at the Nuyorican Poets Café, paradoxes rule. The Russian woman is good at making cornrows—she has a black daughter. The white supremacist tries to put a positive spin on his hate group. The Italian thug believes dating a black woman proves he isn’t a racist. The black actress emigrates from Britain because she thinks Americans will love her accent. Jones’s fantastically wide range and rambunctious imagination are riveting. Her male characters are as convincing as her female ones, the white ones as sympathetic as the black, the right-wingers as tragic and complicated as her lefties. You’d think she was the product of a mixed marriage, had lived in a racially diverse area like Queens, and gone to the U.N. high school or something.
And you’d be right. Born in Baltimore, the mixed-race daughter of Johns Hopkins med students, she traveled up and down the Eastern seaboard because her father was in the military. There was Washington, D.C., then a move to Boston, where the family lived on Dorchester’s Intervale Street. “The most notorious street,” Jones says. “It looks like Beirut. I was happy. I didn’t know the reason we had all the pretty cats was to get rid of the pretty mice.” While there, she instructs me, “I learned to do what I learned in college is called ‘code switching.'” The young Jones developed a facility for moving back and forth between D.C. ‘Bama slang and “whitey-white Sarah,” depending on her context. “When I was growing up though, that was called ‘being fake.’ So I was like, Mommy, I’m fake! I talk one way to you and another way to Daddy, the kids hate me, I’m Catholic, I’m a zebra—help me!” Her heritage-month presentation earned her the epithet “gap-toothed leprechaun.”
Then came the move to New York. Hit with the one-two-three punch of zebrahood, rootlessness, and low income while popping her milk cartons next to the children of diplomats, Jones’s insecurities reached fever pitch. “In a way, we were all little zebras in the zebra cage, but they’d be like, ‘Oh we’re going to Saint-Tropez for vacation,’ and I’d be like, ‘Um…'” She lied about her family in an effort to fit in. But then she started to use her illusions, too. “I would call up the school office and pretend to be my friends’ parents,” she confesses, demonstrating with a dead-on Indian accent. “I’d be like, ‘Gita is very sick today…’ They disconnected the phone in the student lounge once they figured it out.”
While at Bryn Mawr College, among “scary white people who wanted to touch my hair,” she switched definitively into code black, deintegrating with the several other mixed-race women there. Unable to finish Bryn Mawr because a sister’s illness drained the family of funds, she came to New York and entered a “hoochie mama” phase—”I was ‘studying at Hunter,'” she blurts sarcastically—attending hip-hop parties at Tavern on the Green, among other places. “You knew that when you walked up in there, you were a ‘ho on some kind of a spectrum. Guys were only interested in what was in them jeans. You really had no value.”
Now Miss Sarah is all value. She takes another cell-phone call. “I’m ghetto fabulous,” she explains after hanging up. “My phone’s broken so I have to pinch it to make it work.” She’s manic, finishing one of every four sentences. “I was doing this reading for Perry Ellis—of all people—to benefit city kids, and I decided to do my poem about how I hate brand names,” she recounts. I ask her to recite it. It throbs with strident lines about the inability of Nikes and Reeboks to hold “the blood that coagulated… in the lower extremities of Black corpses strung up from trees.” She had hesitated to read it and then realized how much the audience would eat it up. It’s a conundrum worthy of a Sarah Jones character. “When I think about how the spirit that moves us to write has become a commodity, it’s very surreal. We’re jumping on it in order to empower ourselves—and I certainly have a political ax to grind—but it is the right brown for the season.”