The Brooklyn Moon Café—the epicenter of a renaissance in spoken-word poetry—was packed wall-to-wall every Friday night during the mid-1990s. The unassuming restaurant and lounge hosted a weekly open mic for poets, some of whom would eventually go on to produce albums, books, and movies: young, gifted, and black poets like muMs (of HBO’s Oz), Saul Williams (of the Rick Rubin-produced Amethyst Rock Star), and jessica Care moore (author of The Words Don’t Fit in My Mouth). Sarah Jones, one of the greatest voices to emerge from that scene, advanced to write and perform solo shows evocative of the early work of Danny Hoch and Anna Deavere Smith.
Since debuting her character sketch-work at the Nuyorican Poets Café in Surface Transit (1998), Jones sharpened her mash-up of comedy, social criticism, and satire in the award-winning one-woman plays Women Can’t Wait (2000) and Waking the American Dream (2002). From 2002 to ’03, Jones even fought the law and won after the FCC fined a radio station for airing her “indecent” poem, “Your Revolution.” (A sample: “your revolution won’t knock me up/ and produce lil’ future MCs/ because that revolution will not/ happen between these thighs.”) Jones sued, causing the commission to rescind its ruling after two years of legal wrangling.
In her Broadway-bound Bridge & Tunnel (last year’s 45 Bleecker Street Theatre version was produced, in part, by Meryl Streep), Jones inhabits fourteen different multicultural personalities, any of whom—Pakistani accountant Mohammed Ali, Mexican laborer Juan José—might be seen strap-hanging on a 7 train headed to her native Jamaica, Queens.
The poet-performer-playwright-spoken-word-artist-actress explained herself during a recent phone call from Manhattan. Chatting amiably on a cellular in the midst of approving her pilot for The Sarah Jones Show—with asides from Steve Coleman, her personal and professional partner—Jones seemed frenzied but in good spirits.
—Miles Marshall Lewis
I. “WE OUGHT TO GIVE PEOPLE A LOT MORE CREDIT FOR THEIR CREATIVITY AS AUDIENCE MEMBERS.”
THE BELIEVER: Tell me about The Sarah Jones Show for Bravo.
SARAH JONES: We taped a pilot, and it was a really important learning experience for me and my partner [Steve Coleman]. He already had experience with Def Poetry Jam on Broadway, and I had my experience dealing with some mainstream television and theater projects. But for the most part, this was our first foray into basic cable and this world of having to worry about focus groups and all that kind of stuff. So we approached it the way we would any other project. We tried to learn as much as we could as we went, and we promised ourselves we wouldn’t compromise our vision. And what we discovered is, low budget means low budget. When you’re dealing with cable stations, they’re not flush with cash. So we figured out ways to write what we wanted to write and say what we wanted to say, and we’ll see what happens with it.
BLVR: Back in 1977, Lily Tomlin told Time magazine: “Commercial TV specializes in escapist fantasies. I deal with culture reality.” What’s your opinion of this idea?
SJ: I think that she’s absolutely right. And fortunately, because she’s as inventive and creative and engaged as she is in the world, she found the bridge between realities. She figured out how to present the ideas that she thought were relevant in a way that almost fooled the public—or, to put it a better way, the executives at the television networks—into thinking that she was giving them whatever it is they believe people want. We ought to give people a lot more credit for their creativity as audience members and their ability to stretch their own ideas about what’s funny, what’s dramatic, what’s moving. There’s lots of room for people to learn about one another, learn about themselves, that I think we aren’t tapping into because a whole bunch of corporate hacks have decided what’s gonna go on television and what’s gonna be the best developed. It’s a mess.
BLVR: Given your roots in poetry, are you concerned with being seen more in the line of Lily Tomlin and Tracy Ullman rather than Sonia Sanchez and Nikki Giovanni?
SJ: I like the way you frame the question. It’s significant that the first two you mention are white women who had larger mainstream success and the second two are black women who are not as well known to the “mainstream” audience, which we usually read to mean “white.” I’m not bothered, because the reality is, my poetry as a means to express myself came to me really around the same time I was experiencing Lily Tomlin and Whoopi Goldberg, actually, and the other people I saw when I was a child. So, if you think in terms of an education, I was taking my Whoopi Goldberg and Tracy Ullman and Lily Tomlin classes at the same time as I was taking my classes in Sonia Sanchez and Nikki Giovanni and all of those other writers. I was learning all of those things at the same time, in the same mix. It’s very fair to say that the work I’m doing right now has at least as much in common with other solo performers and monologue work as it does with the poets and the spoken word movement and slam poetry and all that kind of stuff. I definitely feel connected to both.
BLVR: So you’re not afraid of becoming viewed as more of a monologist than a poet?
SJ: No, I’m not afraid of that at all. The work always speaks for itself.If I write something and put it out there for public consumption, you can be pretty sure that I thought carefully about it. It’s a reflection of who I am and what I think is important. I mean, I’ve been called everything from a singer to a songwriter to a rapper. Different labels abound, and it is all subject to certain folks’ interpretation sometimes. So you let them think they know what box to put you in and then you eventually get to a place where you hopefully transcend all the boxes.You get to use the labels that you choose in a context that shows the value of what you’re doing. I don’t ever want people to say,“Oh, well, she’s a poet so that means I should pay less attention than if she’s an actor,” or vice versa. I don’t think any of those things are true, and hopefully the work guarantees that people will pay attention.
BLVR: What direction do you see your art taking post Broadway?
SJ: I will probably get into some kind of a television project. I think I’ve learned from watching others whose work I really admire—whether it’s someone like Richard Pryor or Meryl Streep, whom I’ve now been fortunate enough to work with, or people outside of the entertainment field, great writers like Angela Davis and Howard Zinn. Every time those folks get their voice and their ideas into the mainstream, it helps awaken people who otherwise wouldn’t have known about them. The more we can do, as people who are concerned with social justice, to broaden our audience, the more we must do. I’m gonna make sure I use these tools that are available to me right now to say what I have to say to as many people as I can reach.
II. “HOW DO YOU CONTINUE SAYING WHAT YOU THINK IS IMPORTANT AS THE CULTURE FIGURES OUT THAT IT’S COOL?”
BLVR: Detail for me what your experience was like dealing with Hollywood.
SJ: Well, I could keep you on the phone for four hours [laughs], so I’ll give you the abbreviated version. I got an opportunity to do a television program for MTV at one point—
BLVR: The short-lived Lyricist Lounge show.
SJ: Right. I had a couple of different opportunities and I basically discovered that, while the idea seemed cool, it just wasn’t a good fit. My sensibilities were much more rooted in talking about what I thought was relevant not only to my life but to lots of other people’s lives that wasn’t on television already.And as much fun as that show turned out to be for everybody who participated in it, I felt like it wasn’t the right move for me at the time, and I had something else I needed to say. So it was an important awakening; I wouldn’t call it the rudest awakening. I’ve heard other people’s stories are much worse. But one thing I figured out is, if I want the roles that give me credit for all of my humanity and not just being a woman or being somebody’s trophy girlfriend or just being a black person who doesn’t have all the layers that we know black people really have but is instead some stereotype cooked up by a Hollywood writer who doesn’t even know any black people… If I want to avoid those parts and still manage to have a career in that arena, I have to write my own stuff and find other people who are like-minded.
BLVR: What would be your ideal role?
SJ: There are probably too many to mention. I can tell you that they’d be fully fleshed-out human beings, which are always the best roles.When somebody has a lot of facets to their character, they’re always the richer character, the more interesting character, the one that gives the author more of a challenge and gives the audience something meaningful to take with them. All of Hollywood has that problem, but in particular if you’re a black woman, it’s definitely not easy.
BLVR: Discuss the inspiration behind “spoken word rock stars,” the poem in your chapbook Your Revolution which goes a little something like,“we fam’ly; yeah we/ shiny bards weak pens thick grins/ SAG membership cards.”
SJ: Is that a little poem of mine, a little haiku? I guess I was thinking about all of the people I knew and all of the people I came through the Nuyorican [Poets Café] with myself, and how we had a new challenge before us that we had to make sense of. And the challenge was, we can continue our career development and continue getting more exposure and earning more money and all these really exciting things, but at what cost? I think that was the question in my mind when I wrote it. And I thought, “Well, who are we? Are we spoken word rock stars now?” I remember catching a glimpse of myself in some leather pants at one point and thinking, “What is this image I have of myself?” But I also figured out through those kind of probing, internal questions, you arrive at really great answers. Part of what made our work interesting was that we were trying to move forward and get our ideas to larger and larger audiences and enjoy all of who we were, which was hiphop lovers and poetry lovers and actors and whatever else. So I think it was about reconciling what might appear to be contradictions at first.
BLVR: One of the problems hiphop wrestles with is maintaining the great characteristics it had in its underground phase now that it’s the dominant mainstream worldwide youth culture. It’s a similar challenge for the spoken word movement; in your own career, you’ve gone from giving readings at the Brooklyn Moon Café to, now, Broadway.
SJ: Whether you’re talking about poetry or whatever the art form is, we can say,“Once you go pop, then this happens” or “Once it goes mainstream, that happens.” I understand what people mean, but I’d like to talk more concretely about what actually happens. I think there’s an important political piece and an important economic piece that don’t usually get talked about. If you’re talking about hiphop, it’s important to mention that large media conglomerates are owned and operated by very wealthy white men. At the end of the day, they dictate what gets promoted, who gets signed, all those types of things. Saying, “Oh, this happened in hiphop” without looking at the real historical facts doesn’t help us at all. It’s the same with any music. I think it’s the same for everybody.How do you continue saying what you think is important as the culture figures out that it’s cool? When the only means to get it out to the large audiences you want to reach is through companies that don’t agree with your political views and would like to water you down? Or wanna shift what you’re saying and change your message so that instead of helping young people become politicized and radicalized, you instead teach them to parrot lyrics that are about misogyny or violence or whatever? That doesn’t come from the culture itself only, certainly. I think that it happens in those other ways I was talking about. There are some really concrete reasons that trends happen the way they do. I never wanna blame. I never wanna say, “Look what hiphop did.” Hiphop is sort of an abstract concept in that respect. It’s an important cultural movement that can’t be solely blamed for the path that it’s taking.You have to look at the more complicated structures.
III. “YOU CAN’T TALK ABOUT WOMEN WITHOUT TALKING ABOUT CLASS AND RACE AND ETHNICITY AND LANGUAGE AND RELIGION AND HOMOPHOBIA.”
BLVR:What’s your opinion of Chappelle’s Show?
SJ: I’ll say first and foremost that I really love Dave Chappelle. I’ve loved his work for a long time. He’s a cool brother and he has some really innovative ideas. He puts them out there in a way that really grabs the attention of a huge,important audience and helps shape what they think is funny. Now, of course, if you ask me what I think about bitches-and-hoes humor, I think that’s sometimes less funny than some of the other observational stuff that he does. He’s just so funny that, to me, he can “get away with” not doing the usual humor. He can get away with getting people to think outside these narrow ideas of what’s funny. You know, men and women issues and, “Did you ever notice that…?” He can get away with really funny observational humor that doesn’t dehumanize anybody. So, I love it when he does that. That’s my favorite aspect of his work.
BLVR: What’s your opinion on using your own life as fodder for your art, taking the autobiographical approach?
SJ: I think it’s great. It’s probably the only way most people who write something truly worthwhile can work. How we define autobiographical is something else. Everybody is writing from a particular set of experiences. Just because they don’t name the characters after people they know, or the characters might be disguised in one way or another, or the story might seem removed from the author doesn’t mean there aren’t strong strains of that person’s life in the work.The best work is somehow directly connected to the writer’s experiences.
BLVR: How autobiographical do you consider your own work?
SJ: It’s autobiographical in the way that I just said. It comes out of my experiences with people and it’s filtered through my idea of how the world works and how people live their lives and all that.There’s more overtly autobiographical work that I may do in the future, and that’s something that I’m playing around with in my head all the time.
BLVR: Your mother is of European-Caribbean descent. Where in Europe and where in the Caribbean?
SJ: My mother’s mother was Irish-American and German-American, and my father is of Dominican and… Basically, we had some folks move from the Dominican Republic through St. Thomas, Tortola, a whole bunch of islands to here. So, it’s a Dominican story but it’s a Caribbean story.
BLVR: What role has your father played in your life?
SJ: My father is a great character. I was influenced by his eccentricity and his seemingly unquenchable thirst for information about the world around him, whether it was around race issues or justice issues or people’s movements. He was very heavily engaged in all those conversations. At the same time, he was a product of some of the best things folks were able to accomplish through all the hard work of the civil rights movement. Had it not been for those changes that enabled him to get into medical school and become a doctor, I wonder if he would’ve been able to get the kind of formal education and then the rest of the education that he continued to get, even when I was a little kid. He’s just so insatiable when it comes to challenging conventional notions of who is superior and who’s inferior and all that. It really helped me develop a healthy skepticism about particularly mainstream—which we can translate to mean “white supremacist”—values in this country. I was able to move on from there to learn other things, such as how patriarchy influences all those other things.
BLVR: The thesis of Dinesh D’Souza’s 1995 book The End of Racism was that poverty, crime, education, and single-parent households are bigger problems for Americans of color than racism. You critique this in your poem, “an open letter to Dinesh D’Souza.” Do you believe racism is worse than those other ills?
SJ: I believe it’s absurd to even frame the question the way Dinesh D’Souza tried to frame it. It’s unfortunate that there hasn’t been enough attention paid to basic historical facts about race and economics. You can’t talk about women without talking about class and race and ethnicity and language and religion and homophobia, and how all of those different pieces factor into each of our lives. It was huge to me to realize that we live in such an amnesiac culture. And rather than trying to frame it better than the way I’ve heard so many others explain it already, I’ll just mention people like Angela Davis, like Howard Zinn, like Noam Chomsky. Michael Moore brought it into the pop culture sphere. He helped us understand the basic realities that black folks didn’t even get the right to vote, that redlining and discrimination both codified in our laws and practiced culturally throughout the country to this very moment continue to influence people’s lives. I mean, the very idea that someone who calls themselves a historian could put forth such an argument is sort of sad. But, y’know, I’ve heard if you meet [D’Souza], you understand why he would write such a thing. And it’s a very profitable thing to be what I call the panderers of color. I don’t really want to lump Condoleezza Rice in with those folks, but I think one could. There are people who are willing to take the benefits of aligning oneself with the ruling structure rather than fight against it.
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