SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, HOST:
In a one-woman play set in the future, a British sociology professor lectures her students about the sex industry.
(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE OF PLAY, "SELL/BUY/DATE")
SARAH JONES: (As character) Yes, of course men were having sex as well. But you'll remember from the reading, what were male sluts called? Very good, they were called men.
MERAJI: That Sarah Jones. She's the Tony Award-winning playwright and star of the show "Sell/Buy/Date" in which she inhabits 19 different characters - a sex worker from Trinidad, a former pimp from South Central LA, and an elderly Jewish woman from Flushing, Queens.
(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE OF PLAY, "SELL/BUY/DATE")
JONES: (As character) What do I think of prostitution? Are you soliciting me, young man?
JONES: (As character) What are you, about 20 years old? Eighteen, 18 years, my God. I think I have candies in my purse over there.
MERAJI: And Sarah Jones is with me in studio. Welcome to the program.
JONES: Thank you for having me and us.
MERAJI: I'm so excited about meeting all of you.
JONES: We're so happy to be here (laughter).
MERAJI: I know you don't want to give away too much...
MERAJI: ...But is there a character in this play that you identify most with?
JONES: All of these characters have some element of me in them, whether I'd like to admit that or not. There's a pimp. There are a couple of pimp types in here. There are, you know, there's a man who's objectifying women, who's a former cop, who admits to using, you know, prostituted women, or as he says, never on the clock, though, you know, never while I'm actually on the clock, but yeah. And, you know, to realize, of course I'm looking at him. He's objectifying women. I objectify myself and other women. Obviously, it's on a continuum, and it's a different conversation. But every time I look at myself and think, oh, my body's not OK or my worth in value are determined by my appearance and my marketability, I'm kind of engaging in one form of this same narrative. So writing this work has been really cathartic and humbling for me.
MERAJI: What has forced you to start looking at yourself in relationship to this? Why are you beginning to do this now?
JONES: One of the things I'm discovering in performing this piece in different places and in connecting with people, one commonality is engaging after the show whether, it's in Q&A or with social media. And I've found myself being really, you know, open about my own #MeToo experiences that predate the hashtags. You know, when I was in college, I thought about stripping as kind of a, you know, it was sort of cool. It was like, oh, this is my pre-Beyonce feminism. Like, yes, I have bell hooks on this side, but I have Biggie Smalls on this side. And, you know, what does healthy sexuality look like as a woman at Bryn Mawr College, where you have to, you know, kind of clench your back molars to say Bryn Mawr? But who also, you know, I would go home from school from Philly to New York and party with rappers.
And, you know, what did it look like to trade on my appearance and being a woman in a context that was obviously just as sexist as the rest of the culture? But in hip-hop, there was definitely this space that I was trying to occupy as a feminist as well. And so looking at all of that, I'm on a continuum of women who are negotiating their relationship to sex and power in a male-dominated culture.
MERAJI: I was wondering if people come up to you after the show to talk about these characters that you embody, whether they say to you, oh, my gosh, I totally saw myself in that person or whether they'd say to you, maybe you didn't get that quite right or I'm not sure if I felt comfortable with you using this accent which is my accent which was my real accent? Can you talk about some of these conversations that you have after the show that may be comfortable and supportive and maybe not as comfortable?
JONES: Yeah. I would say, for whatever reason, the gods, goddesses and trans gods of the theater and of accents and, you know, kind of persona, I really don't think of my - of these characters as just having an accent. You know, there's a woman in the show. She's from Dominican Republic. She's half Puerto Rican, half Dominican, all proud. And it's very important to me that people understand that I have a direct connection to Dominican Republic myself through my family, but also that I want you to hear her accent. And if you have a problem with her accent, I want you to hold up a mirror to yourself because, actually, there's no indignity to having accented English. Actually, it just means I speak two languages, so what? You know, so I love kind of doing a deep dive into people's experience and then presenting it to those people first. I always take every character.
You know, I can remember - hi there, my name is Pravine (phd), I'm also in the show. And Sarah Jones Jones went to United Nation Schools You also comes from a mixed cultural background. So she was growing up with different people from different places from - for so long. But then when she came to India, she was kind of working out some of this material and touring the different places. There are lots of conversations about sex work or prostitution or commercial sexual exploitation that we can have all over the world. So she came to India, and we said, very good. Cracking Good job. She's a very nice woman, bit tall. But other than that, she fit in quite well.
So, you know, I really try to vet my material with people from those communities first and then try to engage directly in the conversation. If someone says, I feel like this isn't dignified, why are you doing this? I'll say, well, why do you think someone who's involved in sex work is inherently not dignified?
MERAJI: What is it about how you were raised and how you were brought up that drew you to different people with different experiences and drew you to wanting to bring their stories to life?
JONES: Yeah. Well, I think, like so many of us in today's culture, I come from a mixed upbringing experience. My family was black and white. On my mom's side, my grandmother was Irish-American and German-American. And we have both Christians and Jews on that side of the family. As my character Lorraine (ph) would say, it's a long story filled with intrigue and interfaith guilt. But, you know, you know, my black relatives, my white relatives, the people who you meet in my shows are these amalgamated versions of people I really knew. And I had to learn to code switch, as we call it now, just to like get dinner.
So, you know, growing up, it was very normal for me to identify with the kind of e pluribus unum within me and to see that as very normal. And it wasn't until I went out into the world where people were like, well, what is it? Which is it? You talk white. You this, you that. I heard a lot of that. And gradually, I learned to stop fearing all of those many - what felt like these different shards of myself, and instead, see it as one whole. You know, I am, I'm a mosaic of a person. And that's authentically who I am.
MERAJI: That's Sarah Jones talking about her play "Sell/Buy/Date." Sarah, thanks so much.
JONES: Thank you, Shereen. It's my pleasure - our pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.