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Performance artist Sarah Jones transforms into eight women to examine human rights in her solo show

Wednesday, Mar 13 2002
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Sarah Jones has the uncanny ability to slip in and out of identities the way most of us change our clothes, but her knack for impressions has little to do with physical appearances. A New York-based poet, performance artist, and actress who knows how to get inside someone's head, Jones first revealed her gift for role-playing in her one-woman show Surface Transit in 1998. The politically charged collection of monologues brought to life a sundry cast of characters that included a Jewish bubbe, a homophobic Italian cop, and a white supremacist. Her performance attracted the attention of the international women's rights group Equality Now, which commissioned her to write Women Can't Wait!, a play about eight different women from around the world whose human rights are jeopardized by discriminatory laws.

Originally performed at the United Nations' International Conference on Women's Rights in 2000, the show (as well as its title) contradicts the notion that patience is always a virtue. Jones' incarnations are based on real people and Internet research, but her characters -- and their words -- are all her own. Using a sheer scarf (wrapped around her head or balled up to form a doll) and a facility with accents and facial expressions, Jones morphs from Praveen, a shy Indian woman who finds the strength to talk about the regular beatings and rape she suffers at the hands of her husband, to Anna from Kenya, who at 16 lives in fear of genital mutilation, to Emeraude, a rebellious French woman who defies the law prohibiting women from working at night.

Jones' political and feminist leanings could be attributed to her own struggles with racial identity as the product of a mixed marriage. A Bryn Mawr student who once entertained aspirations of becoming a lawyer, she transformed a slew of amateur poems into a polished act, winning the infamously finicky Nuyorican Poets Cafe's Grand Slam Championship in 1997 and cementing her reputation as a spoken-word diva. Though her rise has been uncharacteristically smooth, it has not been without controversy: Jones doesn't traffic in theory alone. When she found herself last year in a legal imbroglio with the FCC -- which had fined an independent radio station in Portland, Ore., for playing "Your Revolution," her feminist reworking of Gil Scott-Heron's poem "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" -- Jones took advantage of the media's attention. She used it as a platform to fight for freedom of expression, taking the government agency to task for censoring her version as "patently offensive." Though her piece begins with fighting words -- "Your revolution will not happen between these thighs" -- it's hardly more distasteful than verses of certain rap artists.

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Lisa Hom

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