Off Broadway’s goddess of the quick-change, Sarah Jones, began on the performance poetry circuit, and her electrically theatrical one-woman show “Surface Transit” is a smashing excuse for her to drop some razor-sharp rhymes. It’s also a good deal more. Jones links her verbally dexterous character monologues with a connective tissue of story, so that each narrative collides with the others to create an urban landscape populated by individuals on the verge of sexual and racial collision.
We meet a homeless crone who speaks in a biblical cadence, a Jewish grandmother whose psychosomatic ailments are brought on by her rejection of her gay son and an array of hip-hop orators who make the stage a rhymers’ paradise. Jones’ P.C. politics are no revelation, but her ear for spoken language is so fresh you can almost feel her words wriggling in the air like live eels.
Among her most impressive creations are Sugar, a young British actress with West Indian roots who’s trying out for an MTV reality show called “SICK: Seven Immigrants, a campsite and a kayak”; a widowed Russian immigrant with a half-black daughter; a recovering hip-hop addict named Rashid who is pioneering a 12-step program; and his feisty ex-girlfriend, Keisha, a slammin’ hip-hop sylph who stands up to the horny homeboys with a rant of her own.
Jones also portrays a cloddish police homophobe and the white supremacist who tries to recruit him, but these textbook cretins feel too overdetermined to be real — as if Jones had dutifully scratched out a foil to her sympathetic rebels the better to establish their anger and authenticity.
With little more than a T-shirt change or a pair of plastic spectacles, Jones transforms herself physically for each of her roles with the athleticism of Anna Deavere Smith. Like Smith, Jones grew up in a household of mixed parentage, absorbing voices from her black and white relatives. As a student at the United Nations high school in New York, she also heard a daily wash of international accents, and you can tell by watching her how she sipped and savored them, drawing the energy of immigrant English into her blood.
Jones’ one-woman artistry also has a heart. Where Smith specializes in theatrical taxidermy, displaying her characters’ actual words and tics beneath a layer of shellac, Jones uses her imagination to create sympathetic individuals — endowing the fortunate ones with her indignation and resilient humor.
Whether she’s skewering reality television or chafing the hip-hop bands who borrow their licks from older performers without acknowledging their sources, Jones has the confidence and verbal energy to pull off her satiric portraits of a city in transition, and she knows how to project a kind of authority that’s exhilarating to watch.
Jones is one of two headliners of New York’s first Hip Hop Theater Festival, produced by Danny Hoch. Liza Colon-Zayas shares top billing, but her autobiographical tale of a Bronx adolescence, “Sistah Supreme,” suffers in juxtaposition to Jones’ more polished performance.
Both Jones and Colon-Zayas arrive at P.S. 122 at a time when the ranks of solo performers are booming. With stars like Eric Bogosian and Hoch riding out a wave of audience interest in the form, and experienced documentary artists like Smith offering brownie points on how to fruitfully inhabit the margins between races, Jones appears at a promising moment on the solo horizon. Her gifts will not go unnoticed. Audiences are responding to her multiple talents with unfeigned enthusiasm, and Jones’ reception downtown heralds bigger things for this solo virtuoso.