Sarah Jones’s Surface Transit is an Emotional Tour de Force
Berkeley Repertory Theatre is currently presenting Sarah Jones’ acclaimed one woman show Surface Transit on their Thrust Stage. The poet and activist's show enjoyed sold out runs at The Kennedy Center and the American Palace Theatre and has toured all around the country. She appeared at PS 122 on First Ave, New York from June 14 - August 26, 2000 to rave reviews from the New York press. The New York Post said “Sensitive, funny and unusually absorbing,” while another declared her “Off Broadway’s goddess of the quick change.” The hip hop poet received a Drama Desk Award nomination and she was awarded the Best One Person Show at HBO’s Aspen Comedy Festival.
Surface Transit was written in 1998 by Ms. Jones, but it has been updated to the present day with references to reality television programs and institutional racism such as the TV program Friends. The theme of the 95 minute no intermission solo performance concerns the universal themes of race, religion and gender where Jones weaves savvy political humor and fascinating language into a collection of monologues by eight separate New Yorkers. The artist is able to make these characters flesh and blood persons from different cultural backgrounds, giving them enough depth to make them interesting. Each person has some connection with the previous character, and Ms. Jones rapidly goes from one personality to another.
Ms. Jones, who has been described as “the Tracy Ulman/Whoopi Goldberg of the hip hop generation,” starts out as a homeless bag lady coming down one of the aisles to the center of the thrust stage. She comments on former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani as a Mussolini who has not helped the homeless in any way. The poet then goes into a series of vibrant characters from the streets and communities of modern New York City. These include an immigrant Russian widow with a black child living in a prejudiced neighborhood, a Jewish grandmother in a hilarious phone conversation with the hospital business conducting a survey, and an English-accented West Indies actress auditioning for a reality show who tells a frightening story about an encounter with an Italian cop at one of New York’s airports. Ms. Jones' characters continue with a homophobic police officer and a Southern white supremacist, plus a riotous rap artist addicted to rhyming who is in a 12 step program for the addiction and a head shaking ghetto teenaged poet proud to still have her virginity. Jones goes back to the homeless person at the end of the amazing high voltage performance.
Some of the performances seem to go over the top of the extremes of prejudice, but as Ms. Jones says “Most people prefer not to see reality. I have had people take offense at some stuff I’m doing, but it’s more useful for me to put out there what I know to be true even if it’s what people don’t want to talk about.” I have to admit that the rap poetry was very hard to understand, but the beat was marvelous. There is no doubt that Ms. Jones’ performance is an unflinching look at race and class issues and it makes a thrilling night of theater. She is truly, as the Village Voice puts it, “a spoken word diva.”
Surface Transit continues thru May 18th at the Thrust Stage of the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison Street, Berkeley, Ca. For tickets call 510-647-2949 or (888)4BRITTix or visit www.berkeleyrep.org. Berkeley Rep's final production, Anne Nelson’s acclaimed 9/11 inspired drama The Guys, opens at the Roda Theatre next door on May 21.