Who is Sarah Jones? Depending on where you’ve encountered her, the answer will differ. She’s the British professor teaching a class on gender and sexuality. She’s an older Jewish woman from Queens. She’s a Dominican-American college student and mother. She’s a cop. She’s a 20-something Black man. She’s a TED Talker. She’s a Tony Award winner. She’s an actor and a writer driven by the concept of self-invention and connection.
Jones has brought a global cornucopia of personalities to the stage for the past 20 years, and the truth is she doesn’t just play all of these characters; she is all of these people. Her roles, inspired by her family and friends, swirl with her DNA and point-of-view, emerging out of her. The height of turmoil of this past summer (the brew of COVID-19 and the second Civil Rights movement) brought her and her personas to a different platform: IGTV. Jones decided to “greenlight myself,” and her eight-episode series Sarah Jones & Friends digs into her carpetbag of characters to help us understand one another even when it seems like we have nothing in common.
Just as she did with her Tony-winning Bridge & Tunnel and Off-Broadway’s Sell/Buy/Date, Jones converts what could just be another solo show—playing dozens of characters, taking on accents and physicalities—into a nuanced lesson about the current yet reparable dysfunction of our human family. “This has been a new abnormal, and we get to learn what our resilience looks like in the face of it,” says Jones.
Jones impresses with her transformative skills, but she is a marvel because of how she does it and why.
“As a Black person of mixed-race experience in America, the pandemic was one kind of layer of unraveling for me,” she says. And even as a woman, even as a Black mixed-race person, Jones examines her privilege on camera and interacts with her viewers as she opens to real-time epiphanies. “White supremacist, cis, hetero, patriarchal culture is such a factor in all of our lives to one extent or another. Stepping into [these characters’] shoes, in a way, prevents me from ignoring other people's reality.”
By proxy, it helps audiences do the same.
Thanks to IGTV, that audience grew exponentially, which, in turn, deepened Jones’ experience and impacted her work—each episode in the series building and evolving on the feedback from the one before.
“I have learned that people just getting access for free—as long as they're subscribed to Instagram—has given me exchanges with audiences,” she says. “Audiences saying, ‘I can't believe what you can do. I can’t believe you are reminding me of my Jewish grandma.’ It's wonderful for people to discover our connection as human beings while, hopefully, being entertained.”
Self-producing also led Jones to a deeper level of authenticity. “We have always had this sense of, ‘We need producers.’ We need access to the kind of privilege that a lot of us inherently don't have,” she explains. “To not have to wait for someone else to vet my work, judge, and criticize it, end up in development hell for a year—which is something I went through—and then have it come out as unrecognizable…. This is the opposite. This is an experience of really getting to have a trust exercise with me and the audience and no one interfering, and it's been so gratifying.”
Gratifying and financially fruitful in a time when most artists are unemployed. Jones offered her Venmo handle thinking people might want to donate a couple bucks, pay-what-you-can style. “I've done two six-week runs of work at MTC. In all of that time, I made less money than I do on Venmo doing these shows,” Jones shares. “I'm grateful for institutions, making it possible for audiences to find our work a lot of the time, but Instagram eliminates that.”
Which begs the question (particularly in an age where our stages are closed): How should we make theatre? Would IGTV work for other projects?
IGTV is ideal for Jones because of her mission: to reach a wide audience in an intimate and casual setting for hard conversations. Jones says, “For me, watching my heroes be multiple characters, not just opine as they think those characters would, but being those people [creates the question], 'What does it mean to be someone else?' That hopefully starts to shrink the gap a little bit between us.”
She’s already encountered evidence that it’s working. “I've gotten to watch people who've started with none of this in their vocabulary be able to talk about, ‘What does it mean to be an ally?’” she says. “To watch them go from, ‘I know something awful happened and I don't have language around it’ to ‘I do understand that when I hear defund the police, all people are saying is, can we divert some of the funding?’”
In this era of fixing the American family dysfunction, of a reckoning with systemic racism, of battling a health crisis, Jones ascribes four phases to our process to progress: awareness, awkwardness, acceptance, and actions.
For phase one, Sarah Jones & Friends is the safe place. “You can get a European-American rights advocate, a sex-positive feminist college student in the same body,” Jones laughs. “There's no reason that you can't have a 20-minute experience at your desk, a lunch break with a Wednesday matinee on Instagram that really does try to link all of us as human beings alongside the incredible divide that we're experiencing.”
Watch all eight episodes on Jones’ IGTV. Follow her @yesimsarahjones.