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Bridge and Tunnel

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Bari Weiss reviews Bridge and Tunnel, performer-writer Sarah Jones’ theatre tribute to the immigrant experience.

It’s hard to knock a female solo performer headlining packed houses at 29, especially when Meryl Streep has called her “a member of the tribe.” But Meryl Streep’s blessing can only get you to the Village; it takes audiences to land you on Broadway, where she now does her thing nightly at the Helen Hayes. It’s the people who have spoken loudest: Sarah Jones is as good as hell.

A graduate of Bryn Mawr, Jones came onto the New York scene as a slam poet at the Nuyorican Poets Café, but she made a name for herself in 2001 with her feminist hip-hop song, “Your Revolution.” The song was censored by the Federal Communications Commission (ironically, given its anti-chauvinist lyrics) until Jones sued and won.

Bridge and Tunnel, Jones’ third solo play, is a showcase of what she does best: characters. It is set at the fifth annual I.A.M.A.P.O.E.T.O.O. poetry showcase (don’t ask what it stands for), in which fourteen poets, from places as varied as Mexico to Moscow, perform at the seedy Bridge and Tunnel Café.

Otherness in America is not a new story. What’s new is Jones and her ability to perform such a political play without seeming preachy or heavy-handed. Though each of her characters experiences a host of difficulty in this country, what is most profound is not their suffering, but their thick-skinned humor.

The showcase is hosted by Muhammad Ali, a Pakistani Muslim with a penchant for bad jokes. Intermittently, he is interrupted by calls from his anxious wife—the government insists on performing a “background check” on him. It’s nebulous, but we get the point: Ali is no terrorist.

We are reminded that such xenophobia is nothing new for immigrant Americans as the play moves directly from Muhammad to Loriane Levine, Jones’ spot-on Eastern European arthritic Jewish grandmother from Long Island. This juxtaposition reminds the audience that now-staples of “American culture” (think: Mike Myers’ Coffeetalking Linda Richman on SNL) were once considered dirty immigrants.

From Levine she transforms into Bao, a twenty-something Vietnamese-American who angrily insists that his poem is not about “crouching tiger and hidden drycleaner, or rice, or flowering lotuses.” The audience gasped as Jones transitioned from her high-registered eleven-year old Latina girl to Monique, a sultry performance artist from Australia via Brooklyn. Jones became Juan Jose, a Mexican-American worker relegated to a wheelchair, and Boris, an elderly Russian. Jones doesn’t just “do voices,” she embodies people. With every prop she dons to signify a new character, her six-foot frame seemed to morph in front of our eyes.

Perhaps the most moving character is Mrs. Ling, a Chinese-American from Flushing, who speaks from behind thick glasses about coming to terms with her daughter’s lesbianism. Jones conveys, in a perfect Chinese accent, her deep struggle with her daughter’s own “foreign” lifestyle.

One gets the feeling that Rashid, a black hip-hop performer who is the only non-immigrant character, is a stand-in for Jones herself. He uses self-deprecating humor to connect with the mostly immigrant crowd: “Black people, you know what I’m saying, we get imported, you get deported.” He even throws in a terrorist joke: “Obama. See, our man is only one consonant away from being a terrorist.”

Though some critics will inevitably contend that the play is a little too naïve and reminiscent of an ACLU ad, the fact remains that Jones is a great talent, and her characters have resonance. As an African-American, Jones reminds her audience of our commonality: at some point, we all were -Americans.

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1 Comment

  1. fan

    saw her at miller a couple of years ago. she's goooood.

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