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.”
In her newest solo show, Sell/Buy/Date, ethnic groups are a forgotten construct of the past. The play, which premiered Off Broadway in 2016 and is now showing at Los Angeles’s Geffen Playhouse through April 8, takes place in an imagined future — many, many years ahead — that is post-race and post-gender. It uses this lens to look at the impacts of the sex industry as we know it today — and where it might be headed. Sarah plays a medley of multiethnic characters (from the past): an Asian-Australian sex worker, a Russian purveyor of sex tourism, a Native American activist, and a Caribbean victim of sex trafficking, among many others. These characters aren’t just figments of her imagination; they are rooted in hours of research and interviews with real people who have worked in or been involved with the sex industry. That is the basis of Sarah’s work as a playwright and performer today: to do justice to real people and their stories while grappling with the urgent issues of our time.
For Sarah, just as art and humanity go hand in hand, art and politics are inseparable. “You have a responsibility to at least be intentional about what you’re putting out there,” she says. “The choice to be noncommittal around political issues is itself a political choice. To me, it says: ‘I have the luxury of not needing to address any of this in my work.’ And that’s an artist’s prerogative. But for me, because I am in this body and in this skin — as a woman, as a black person, as a person of multiracial descent, and as an American …” She trails off here, but it’s clear that she feels the weight of our choices — no matter who we are or what we look like — in the arts today.
Like every artist, especially one who is creating in an age that is being defined by identity politics, she’s all too aware that her work invites scrutiny and criticism. “It would be fair, and I would certainly listen to anybody who thinks I don’t have the right to [do this] … And I take the risk that people won’t get it or will feel offended,” she says. “My goal is to represent, to the best of my ability, the truth that I know from the research I’ve done. And thankfully, my experiences so far have been a reflection back on what I feel — and that is deeply connected to each of my characters, however flawed and imperfect they may be.”
Sarah has gone from being a young girl with a party trick to an acclaimed, award-winning performer (she’s also a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador and a TED Talker, and she has her own podcast), and yet fame was never her grand design. Motivated by the likes of Lily Tomlin, Tracey Ullman, Whoopi Goldberg, and Robin Williams, she simply followed her heart and pursued what she loved doing.
“I was blissfully ignorant of what I was stepping into. I think fearlessness comes in many forms, and in my case, I didn’t go to Tisch,” she says, referring to NYU's school of the arts. “I didn’t have a sense of this endless line of people auditioning and sizing each other up. I never experienced any of that. I didn’t even know to be intimidated.”
It’s an interesting thought: that a kind of naïveté disguised as fearlessness helped pave the way for her success in what is a very difficult and competitive field. Just before we wrap up our conversation, I ask her about this. “I’d like to amend the word fearlessness,” she tells me. “I think that you can be filled with fear or have fear, but if the idea, or the inspiration, or the project that’s captured your imagination and your soul has enough value for you, then it will propel you past your fear. I was fearless enough that what was driving me was just pure curiosity and inspiration.” And, of course, those little voices inside her head.
Olivia Clement is a playwright and journalist based in New York City. She, too, has voices inside her head.