Emma Lazarus would be kvelling. Not only do the tired, poor, huddled masses breathe free in “Bridge & Tunnel,” but their voices are raised with humor, harmony and compassion in monologuist Sarah Jones’ dazzling one-woman gallery of immigrants and outsiders. Booked for a limited Broadway run following its sellout downtown stint in 2004, this is much more than a showcase for the transformative gifts of a talented performer. It’s a bracing piece of social activism, poignant and powerful, that soberly acknowledges the prevailing post-9/11 xenophobia while conjuring a patriotic sense of hope for a country — and particularly a city — built on cultural diversity.
The incisiveness, authenticity, attention to detail and crisp vocal and physical characterizations of the 14 distinct characters inhabited by Jones during the show would be impressive enough. What makes them even more remarkable is the skill with which these unrelated people, in the context of a poetry slam “in the heart of beautiful South Queens,” have been woven into an organic experience with a carefully shaped, unifying point of view.
While its liberal political agenda is apparent, there’s no hint of belabored message-mongering here. Above all, the show is a generous, funny valentine to the kaleidoscopic, cacophonous melting pot of New York and the often invisible people who pump blood to the city’s beating heart.
Effortlessly and swiftly shape-shifting across lines of gender, age, race and physical type, with only minimal (uncredited) costume assists, Jones provides the thread that stitches her diverse characters together in the form of emcee Mohammed Ali, an accountant from Pakistan. He hosts the annual meeting of I.A.M.A.P.O.E.T.T.O.O. (Immigrant and Multiculturalist American Poets or Enthusiasts Traveling Toward Optimistic Openness).
An awkward, good-natured nerd in a badly cut sports coat, Mohammed is Jones’ most vivid character, chuckling delightedly at his own cheesy jokes (“As I tell my clients, I am part Aleksandr Blok, part H&R Block”) and endearingly cultivating a self-conscious veneer of hipness.
But in a strategy repeated successfully by Jones and director Tony Taccone throughout the show, humor is used to catch the audience off-guard with the darker realities some of the characters are facing.
In Mohammed’s pre-show and intermission phone conversations with his anxious wife, it emerges that he’s due to be interrogated by federal agents the following day, implying that the poetry readings have aroused suspicion. Mohammed’s jovial dismissal of his wife’s fears (“What, I am now hiding the limericks of mass destruction?”), and his belief in his basic freedom as an American, are both touching and sadly deluded.
This adroit balance of humor with an understated kick of melancholy, indignation or sometimes anger is what makes Jones’ characters so compelling.
Long Island grandmother Lorraine Levine kvetches about her hip-hop-crazy grandson (“He wants me to call him Funkmaster Sherovsky”), then recalls how her treatment in the 1930s as a Jew from Eastern Europe was not so different from the reception given new immigrants today.
In addition to grappling with American idioms, Mrs. Ling has trouble reconciling her Chinese traditional values with the idea of a proud lesbian daughter. The woman’s beautifully drawn process of acceptance becomes increasingly political as she responds to the threat of deportation for her daughter’s partner.
Jones unleashes a short, sharp shock via an educated young Vietnamese-American who spits out a fiery protest poem that is determinedly not “an authentic immigrant experience piece for PBS,” but instead a raised-fist demand for respect.
By far the most haunting of the vignettes is that of wheelchair-using Juan Jose, whose response to the movie “The Mexican” is to recount his own “action-packed, authentic Mexican-American story,” its love, loss and pain given far greater impact by Jones’ quiet, sober delivery.
Jones’ astonishing range with accents and speech patterns is matched by her skill at redefining her body language. Lorraine’s trembling, arthritic hands and hunched shoulders are a lifetime away from the cocky swagger of Brooklyn rapper Rashid, the fluttering, birdlike grace of Jamaican performance artist Gladys or the wired hostility of Australian poet Monique as she submits her resignation to her unworthy boyfriend in the anti-love poem “Asshole.”
The meek, downcast eyes of Habiba, a Jordanian woman, flash defiantly from under her hijab as she relates how she appropriated Beatles lyrics as a teenager to express her love for a neighbor. As Yajaira, an 11-year-old Dominican girl from the Bronx, Jones seems almost to swallow her lips in a study in shyness, her high-pitched monotone perfectly capturing a child’s suspicious perceptions of the adult world in the achingly sweet poem “I Don’t Want to Grow Up.”
The musical lilt of Rose Aimee’s Haitian Creole accent makes her poem “God Bless America” a song of praise for the country’s cultural enrichment through immigrants. But it also carries a mischievous sting when she follows the title with a tart caveat directed at a bigoted Miami real estate broker: “…but not because of you.”
Returning to New York after further workshopping at Berkeley Rep (where Taccone is artistic director), the show has been seamlessly fine-tuned to fold a broad range of real human experience into the single theme of marginalized people looking for acceptance, dignity and the right to express themselves. There’s also a proud, soulful sense of the struggle to assimilate into American life without erasing individual histories and cultural identities.
“You’ve made me feel at home tonight,” says Mohammed as he wraps up the evening. The simplicity of that statement, and the complex, conditional nature of the truth behind that sentiment for so many Americans, whether first generation or fifth, is what takes this unique show beyond comedy to a far more insightful, unexpectedly moving place.