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Get On the Bus 

Sarah Jones' characters aren't just studies in race and prejudice; they're studies in contradiction

Wednesday, May 7 2003
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The best-known part of Surface Transit may be what Sarah Jones calls her "song/poem," "Your Revolution," performed by one of her characters in the final scene. Jones filed and won a lawsuit against the FCC when it tried to ban the poem (in a version with music) from the radio. "Your Revolution" is a self-standing work, performed in slam style, that updates Gil Scott-Heron's classic rap "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" with a feminist, hip hop sensibility. "Your revolution will not happen between these thighs," go the better-known lines. "The real revolution/ Ain't about booty size/ The Versaces you buys/ The Lexus you drives," and so on.

A concerned citizen in Oregon complained to the FCC language police when a community radio station played Jones' piece in 1999, and the FCC saw fit to threaten the station, KBOO-FM, with a $7,000 fine if it didn't quit playing "Your Revolution." It did, and other stations soon shied away. Jones sued. Artists tend to keep out of such dust-ups between broadcasters and the FCC, but Jones was pissed: Here she'd written a poem protesting all the misogynistic, bitch-and-ho language of rap artists you hear on the radio every day, and she gets labeled obscene? The piece doesn't even use any of the seven dirty words banished from the American airwaves for the protection of our delicate morals.

Jones won in February. But the poem is the weakest part of Surface Transit. Like most works of art that make people really angry, "Your Revolution" is political, and the rest of Transit has more going for it than politics. Jones is a young actress and poet with a famous, uncanny talent for shape-shifting. In this 5-year-old solo show -- updated by Jones and restaged for Berkeley Rep by Artistic Director Tony Taccone -- she bends in and out of roles as diverse as a homophobic New York cop, a homeless black woman called Ms. Lady, a nervous young Russian immigrant who cleans house for a Jewish grandmother, and the Jewish grandmother. They're all New York types, with stories that interweave in unexpected ways. The title suggests not only the New York City bus system, but also a movement along the face of things: What looks like a profound transformation on the stage, Jones implies, may be superficial.

The show starts with Ms. Lady. Before the house lights dim she waddles onstage with a collection of plastic shopping bags, working her lips and looking sidelong at the audience with a satirical gleam. "Mmm-hm. I see through all a y'all," she says. "Talkin' on dem cellular devil-phones. ... I seen you talkin' in the middle of the street without no cord. It ain't natural!" Ms. Lady is a vivid and funny hostess-narrator, even if theater audiences have seen her before in the person of Lily Tomlin's Trudy, the bag lady in The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe.

Jones goes on to perform a moving portrait of Pasha, the Russian immigrant, widowed in Brooklyn by an African-American soldier she met near Moscow, and trying to raise her half-white daughter in the racially tense neighborhood of Flatbush. Pasha talks to the daughter, Corrina, in their apartment before school. Corrina wants her hair braided in cornrows, and seems to hate the white, foreign, living half of her heritage. "Corrina Svetlana Johnson, you listen to me," Pasha says in a flawlessly rendered Russian accent. "Mommy is not a honky. Mommy is a lady."

Next we see Pasha's employer, a dried-up but hilarious Jewish grandmother called Lorraine Levine who spends the whole scene in her living-room chair, talking on the phone. Her hand quivers; she can hardly see the numbers to dial; she wears bifocals on a chain. "Oh God, what is that?" she says when an invisible grandson crosses the room, wearing something outrageous. "Oh, the hip hop. Hip hop, all right. ... Bye, Joshie. ... No, I am not gonna call you Funkmaster Shiravsky." Lorraine believes herself to be unprejudiced, but can't keep up with modern complexities. "What? You're a lesbian?" she says to a poll-taker on the phone. "I thought you said you were Japanese."

Jones can also do an Italian-American meathead cop, struggling with a court-ordered psychologist after cracking someone's collarbone on Christopher Street (scene of the Stonewall riots); he vehemently denies having a problem with "faggots." Then Jones slips into character as a smooth-talking white supremacist, who sits in a Manhattan bar insisting, to an invisible listener, "New York is fertile territory for immigrants and race-mixers and -- faggots. All right. Them, too," and we realize he's talking to the cop. The strongest characters -- a rapper named Rashid running a 12-step program for kids "addicted to rhyming" and a West Indies-descended actress from London auditioning for a "reality" show on MTV -- I won't even describe. You'll just have to see them for yourself.

What makes each one of these characters so involving is that Jones can point out their flaws without damning them as people. Even the girl waiting for a bus at the end of this 100-minute show -- who delivers the full, defiant text of "Your Revolution" to an unseen man -- wears a cut-off T-shirt and tight pants and looks like she might want someone to get between her thighs. Jones' characters, in other words, aren't just studies in race and contemporary prejudice; they're studies in contradiction, and she explores them with compassion as well as biting humor.

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