Anyone familiar with Sarah Jones probably knows her as an expert monologist, a performer capable of not merely playing but quite literally inhabiting various characters from ALL walks of life, regardless of age, race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, or any of the other facets of personal identity.
Her latest theatrical anthropological study – Sell/Buy/Date, which played Manhattan Theatre Company’s Stage II –their smallest off-Broadway theatre – at City Center earlier this season – follows the same structural model as much of her previous work, all of which she writes for herself to perform: it’s comprised of a series of basically short scenes in which she transforms into a litany of highly differentiated characters one after another. And much like her past shows, Sell/Buy/Date is again a 90-minute masterclass in acting. With no other physical aides than one simple prop that represents an aspect of each of her characters – glasses, a cell phone, a clipboard, etc. – Ms. Jones consummately brings to life before the audience’s very eyes an array of people using nothing more than every single part of her being, be it her voice, posture, style of speaking, etc. By capturing their small, idiosyncratic, habitual behavioral tics – a twitch of the nose, a particular cadence, even a noticeable style of blinking – she transcends the typical caricatures that have almost become emblematic of this performance style and instead embodies the realistic essences of these people.
And yet, the tendency to consider her work as ‘performance pieces’ – a term often associated with substance-bereft plays that seem to exist only for the sake of the over-the-top performance opportunities offered – fails to convey her equally deft talent as a playwright. Many have credited her research-based writing as an integral component to her portrayals feeling so true, but that correct assertion applies to all quality performance pieces, yet doesn’t touch upon the nuanced depth of her texts that sets them apart from conventional performance pieces. Sell/Buy/Date has already been labeled as such, despite its wildly creative dramaturgy ingeniously communicating the necessary societal function of art, separating it from being grouped in a more straightforward artistic genre: the docudrama.
This season has hosted numerous new entries to this form, from Anna Deavere Smith’s Notes From the Field at Second Stage to Spill at Ensemble Studio Theatre. As much as these stories document by recording important stories and the lives affected by them (the former focuses on America’s Prison-Industrial Complex, the latter on the BP oil spill), neither – and this holds true for most examples of the genre – avoids the lingering suspicion that they may have been better suited as filmed documentaries. Yes, the ensemble of Spill enhances its real-life events through theatre’s human intimacy and connection in a shared space, and Ms. Smith’s towering performance as all her characters tries to strip away external differences (such as the aforementioned age, race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, etc.) to allow the audience to focus on the meaning of each of their words as opposed to potentially judging them based on exactly who’s speaking. And yet, none of this compensates for diminishing the power of actually seeing these people talk for themselves and live their own existences on screen (heck, I’d imagine the creators even filmed their interviews, which could make for a more potent viewing experience). Sure, the staging around and ordering of each interview may comment on the proceedings in some fashion, but the same could be achieved through the directorial mise-en-scène of a film.
Perhaps understanding this fatal flaw of docudramas, Sarah Jones set Sell/Buy/Date in the future. This fictional element in no way lessens the impact of her interview-based characters, yet it allows her to make much more profound overarching statements both about her chosen subject (the history of sex workers) and the roles that artistic docudramas should, can and cannot play for a society. In bolstering the drama of her piece, Jones simultaneously strengthens the effects of her theatrical documenting.