Sarah Jones has multiple personalities. There’s an octogenarian Jewish bubbe named Lorraine — she’s the one who tells Sarah to relax when things get stressful. There’s Ms. Lady, an African American woman who lives on the streets, and Praveen, an Indian human-rights activist. There’s Habiba, a professor of Middle Eastern studies, and an Italian-American cop called Joey. They, and many more, all live inside her head. And once in a while, she lets them out to play.
A Tony Award–winning performer and playwright, Sarah has made a living out of embodying multiethnic characters onstage and using their voices to tell a story. But who is the real Sarah Jones?
For one, she never trained professionally, something Meryl Streep (an early mentor of hers) told her to never change. Meryl’s advice: Just keep learning from the teacher you have, which is your wide-ranging life experience.
The daughter of two very busy and high-achieving doctors — a white mother and a black father who were both still at medical school when she was born — the young Sarah spent a lot of time alone or in the company of relatives. It was then that she began to conjure up different characters using her imagination. “There was a lot of time where I felt that I had to be more than just a little girl. I had this overdeveloped sense of responsibility … and I think I learned to fend for myself by letting my characters entertain me.”
Multiculturalism is key to Sarah’s work, which is no accident. As a kid who grew up in Baltimore and New York City, she’s always culled inspiration from her multiethnic family and communities. This colorful mix of personalities has led her to create charismatic, larger-than-life, and sometimes troubled characters.
Her surroundings made for an exciting tableau to draw from, but it also lends her performances a deeper meaning. In the face of a government and culture that dehumanize and “pit human beings against one another like never before,” Sarah’s shows are an act of community. She doesn’t just play different races and characters well, she’s committed to depicting the humanity within each of her characters. This talent is what’s propelled her from being a fringe solo performer to receiving numerous commissions, many of which have had sold-out runs across the world. Her critically acclaimed breakout play, Bridge & Tunnel, was originally produced by Streep and later transferred to Broadway, where it won her a Special Tony Award (an honorary prize).
Though Sarah has written and performed in numerous multicharacter plays, they all have one thing in common: they’re an invitation to find common ground across gender, race, and even political beliefs. “To humanize people onstage is to remind us that as disenchanted, disheartened, and disenfranchised as we might be in this current moment, the one thing that cannot be completely removed from us is our basic humanness,” says Sarah. “Art as an alternative says: We want to join you in our humanity as people who have hopes and dreams and aspirations and triumphs and deep losses and griefs. Those are things everybody has.”
Sarah’s own upbringing and the bifurcated sense of identity that kids from different ethnic backgrounds often feel are integral to her work. Performing not only allows her to make sense of the different people she contains within herself but also provides an opportunity for her audiences to do the same. “I come from people who don’t look like me. I spent my childhood walking around holding my mother’s hand and having people ask me: ‘Are you adopted? Are you two together?’… I was formed by experiences [of feeling disconnected],” she says. “[But] to me, that multiplicity is automatically healing. As soon as you can see yourself in someone else, not only can you soften toward them, but you actually soften toward yourself.”