Seven times a week, sold-out audiences watch fourteen characters inhabit the stage of a small off-Broadway theater, among them, a Pakistani accountant, a Jewish grandmother from Long Island, a Mexican labor organizer, a Jamaican nanny, a Dominican teenager? and all of them are played by one person: Sarah Jones.
Long before writing and performing in Bridge and Tunnel, her one-woman show about the immigrant experience in New York City, Sarah Jones was crossing bridges and tunnels on her way from Queens to the United Nations School in Manhattan.
"And having grown up riding buses and trains on which it was entirely likely that, you know, the person sitting next to me was speaking Urdu and the person on the other side of me was speaking, you know, Creole from Haiti and, I mean this was just normal," said the 29-year-old playwright and actress, who impersonates a whole community of immigrants, male and female, young and old in Bridge and Tunnel. The play is set at a poetry reading in a café in Queens, where the master of ceremonies is Muhammed Ali: Pakistani poet, by night and accountant, by day.
"We've decided we will come up with a name for that gathering," she said. "Okay, well, I came up with that name: I.A.M.A.P.O.E.T.T.O.O. uh, which stands for "Immigrant and Multiculturalist American Poets or Enthusiasts, Traveling toward Optimistic Openness." I am not certain that "multiculturalist" it's a word, but I am a poet, so I've used poetic license there!"
She has actually created a play, using herself alone, to get into the lives and the hearts and the souls of individual people.
Marilyn Stasio gave Bridge and Tunnel a rave review in the show business daily, Variety. She says Sarah Jones' characterizations are never superficial or simplistic. "You really feel that there is a transformation going on and that every time she turns away and puts on a different hat or a different jacket or throws a shawl or a scarf around her and then opens her mouth, that there is an entirely different person onstage," said Ms. Stasio. "Now that's acting."
"There are basically few career possibilities for people of Jamaican ancestry in this country," said Gladys, one of the characters she plays. "One is to become Secretary of State. So, you have Secretary of State. Another is to take care of children. But, you see, either way is the same thing, because you have to run behind over privileged baby, who can barely form sentences."
Sarah Jones says she tries to distinguish her characters by simple means a slight palsy in a hand, a tiny facial tic, the addition of a single piece of clothing. "Well, I think our goal with this piece was to strike a balance between the reality that you're watching a tall black woman, you know, embody these other characters," she explained. "But I don't want people to get lost in wigs and, you know, make-up and all of that kind of thing I really want them to make that leap with me, to suspend disbelief."
Bridge and Tunnel, as the name implies, is all about connections.
"These folks are living in all the same small spaces," she said. "And what's so important about that is they're having to find ways to coexist and find common ground sometimes quite literally. And that, to me is the quintessential New York City story and it's the American story, more and more."
Many elements of that story came from unexpected connections, conversations with store clerks or cab drivers. Sarah Jones says she never used their words verbatim, but tried to synthesize them in the play's narrative, like this segment involving Pauline Ling, a Chinese immigrant, who struggles to understand her two American-born children. Her son is dating an American woman and her daughter?
"She is not gay, she's just confuse, by this American problem," said Mrs. Ling. "But, she tell me, "Mom, it's not American." She said she's in love; in love with a nice Chinese girl. So, these are the words I'm waiting to hear, but from my son, not my daughter!"
"I do think that that Chinese mother is the, sort of, most astonishing transformation," said Actress Meryl Streep, who's known for her carefully-crafted characterizations is one of Bridge and Tunnel's producers. "The way that she understands that there is a common human experience, that in the age of diversity, where the divisions seem to be more important, she sort of pulls together what we all have that's the same," continued Ms. Streep. "And she does it by making these people so distinct and so different and she's amazing."
One of the funniest moments in Bridge and Tunnel is delivered by Rose Amy, a Haitian immigrant who has saved money to buy a house, but is frustrated by a particular real estate broker who refuses to sell to her.
"I just thank him for his time; I buy my house with someone else, but first I write this poem, for all the American, huh? But, I dedicate to that certain real estate man:
God bless America,
But not because of you.
God bless the Haitian immigrant
And Cuban, too.
God bless the Italian, the Korean,
The Colombian who came,
God bless the Jamaican, the Chinese, the Spanish,
Without them Florida will have no name," concluded Rose Amy.
"Every night I have an out-of-body experience, where I almost feel myself, just sort of hovering about the stage," said Ms. Jones. "During the time that the characters are performing their pieces, I really feel like it's them speaking."
When Sarah Jones' Bridge and Tunnel ends its run in June, the show may hop on a bus and bus and head uptown to Broadway.