The Bridge & Tunnel traffic streaming across the stage of the Helen Hayes Theatre in the first Broadway show of the new year is 14 deep, covering both sexes and a dozen different ethnic groups — all of them manned (or rather, womanned) by an attractive, five-foot-eleven chameleon with the appropriately all-American name of Jones.
Sarah Jones has spent her 32 years in New York City as an "outsider" on the inside, just observing and taking notes, eventually turning those notes into a star vehicle that points up and celebrates diversities as well as similarities in our multicolorful, multicultural locale.
She's a hard Jones to keep up with, turning on a dime as she does from an elderly Eastern European American Jewish woman to a young male Vietnamese American slam poet to a wheelchair-bound Mexican American labor organizer to an Australian artist to a Haitian American social worker to a Chinese American housewife. It's a merry march.
"I always wrote it with a small b and a small t," she says about the title punctuation for her parade of ethnically checkered characters. "I'll tell you one of the reasons: I grew up in Queens, knowing the negative connotation of 'bridge & tunnel,' knowing it meant, if you're from the other boroughs, you are not the real New Yorkers. You're not what is important about New York and what makes it tick and what makes it the kind of cultural center of the world it is. You're marginal, quite literally. You're from the other boroughs. "I thought it important to reclaim that image of bridge & tunnel, not only for those people who are the lifeblood of New York but also for the people who've resulted from this new, tremendously important movement that has occurred through the recent waves of immigration from South Asia, East Asia, Latin America, Central America, Africa, West India. Now New York is this incredible — I don't even call it a melting pot anymore — it's a stew pot, and everything simmers together, and it doesn't lose its character."
So, soup's on uptown at the Helen Hayes (January 13-March 12) — hearty and savory as ever, having percolated profitably for seven sold-out months downtown at The Culture Project. That gig got her an Obie; now she's gunning for a Tony.
Several correct assumptions can be drawn from the foregoing about Jones. She really did attend The United Nations International School. Her parents, both doctors who met at Johns Hopkins, insisted. "They wanted me to go to a school that was diverse, and when you go to the U.N. school, you are aware that we as the United States are one important actor on a stage with others. I always knew that I cared about the state of the world and my own relationship to the conditions that other people might be experiencing.
"I came from a diverse family. My father is black American, and his roots are in Baltimore. That's where I was born. My mom is from New York. Her family is the mixed family — like truly mixed. My grandmother was Irish and German, and my grandfather's family is Caribbean-Dominican. My mother looks white, and when I was a kid, that made for a keen sense of maybe being an 'other.' We'd be in a restaurant together, and someone would say sorta incredulously, 'Oh, are you together?' I remember when they went to look for housing for us, my mother went because she would be shown homes that my father wouldn't be shown, and this was the 1980's. So, if you think about it, all those things were filtering down to me. I always had this profound sense of how injustice manifests itself in different people's lives. Even if we all look different or are from different backgrounds, one thing we share is this need for recognition of our humanity."
Jones honed her acting art at Katharine Hepburn's alma mater, Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, then returned to New York for additional study, walking around the city with her eyes and ears open. If she didn't speak the language, she'd "listen as best I could phonetically to the sound and try to grasp the accent and a few phrases. I can say 'hello' and 'goodbye' in many languages, but that's the kind of thing you pick up in New York."
As you might well imagine, Meryl Streep is a huge fan — huge: She co-produced the Off-Broadway run and is a major supporter of the Broadway production — but their mutual fan base is more accent-on-talent than talent-on-accent. "I just think in terms of the kind of voice that I hope one day to have developed — and I mean my voice as a human being — that it is like hers," says Jones. "It is her humanitarian core that imbues all of her characters with such a perfect life. They are perfectly alive, and you can't do that unless you have a deep empathy for other people."
Like her mentor, Sarah Jones has the gift of lighting her characters from within. Her hardest role, she learned the other day at a photo shoot, is herself. "I wasn't doing any character shots at all. They're easy. There's no better way to develop a safe relationship with the camera than to have the character there, protecting you. It's why people become actors. Of course, there can be problems if you live your whole life that way — but, in my case, it's so much fun to play that I feel less like I'm hiding and more like I'm getting paid to pretend all day, like a kid."