Solo theater artist Sarah Jones has a rare talent for creating vivid, original characters through vocal and physical impersonations. What’s even more interesting than the simple fact of her breathtaking skill is how she uses her fluency as a mimic to explore issues and challenge assumptions that rarely get raised — let alone addressed — in more traditional, dramatic forms. When Jones hits the stage at UCSB’s Campbell Hall on Tuesday, January 24, she will do so as the university’s 2017 Michael Douglas Visiting Artist and as a fearless foe of the hypocrisy, the sexism, and the general slow-wittedness about values that plague contemporary culture.
Jones first stood up for self-respect and common sense in 1999 with “Your Revolution,” a musical/poetic collaboration with DJ Vadim that remixed Gil Scott Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” for a hip-hop culture bristling with worn-out macho clichés. In a flurry of clever verses featuring spot-on imitations of rappers such as LL Cool J, Jones hinted at the range and poise she would later display in her evening-length solo performances.
That track and Jones’s fast-rising reputation as a performer in the New York poetry slam scene brought her an offer from MTV to star in her own sketch comedy show, a project from which Jones wound up walking away. The story of that career turning point, along with a parallel tale about an unfortunate encounter with the LAPD, forms the basis of Jones’s remarkable segment for the spoken-word series The Moth. “A Walk on the West Side” remains one of the best contributions ever made to that distinguished program and also indicates something important about her approach and about the material she will perform at UCSB.
Sell/Buy/Date, which just closed a long and successful run at the Manhattan Theatre Club, examines the attitudes and feelings of real people with direct experience in the sex industry. To create the show, Jones spent three years interviewing sex workers and their clients in an attempt to understand an ongoing phenomenon that’s at once pervasive and poorly understood. The result is a dazzling gallery of portraits speaking with many voices and from multiple perspectives. When I caught up with Jones by phone last week, one of the first things she said was how happy she was to be returning to UCSB — she performed her piece Waking the American Dream at Campbell Hall in February 2003 — and how excited she was to be presenting her new work as “an evening with Sarah Jones,” meaning that, while she will not perform the entire show Sell/Buy/Date, she will do excerpts in order to make time for discussing the piece and its topic with the audience.
“Without question, it was life-changing,” Jones said of the research process. “We all have dreams as little boys and little girls about what we will do when we grow up, and whoever you are and whatever you dream, one thing it’s definitely not is that one day you will be having survival sex.” Asked where the hope might lie in acknowledging this grim reality, Jones’s answer is emphatic: “We have an opportunity now to course-correct on this issue as a culture. Take a macro view of sex work, and you see creatures who need connection; but for that to happen, we have to live in a society where all people have real choices.”
UCSB Arts & Lectures presents An Evening with Sarah Jones Tuesday, January 24, at 8 p.m. at UCSB’s Campbell Hall. For tickets and information, visit artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu or call 893-3535.