Sarah Jones' One-Woman Show Tackles Sex Work, Trump and #MeToo

Chris Whitaker

The writer-performer of 'Sell/Buy/Date' (at the Geffen Playhouse through April 15) dishes on the president, "Beyonce feminism" and how dating rappers inspired her to play men onstage.

The writer and performer Sarah Jones is not in the mood to sit in a cafe in Los Angeles’ Westwood. She’d rather walk around the corner to the Geffen Playhouse, where she’s doing her one-woman show, Sell/Buy/Date (through April 15). But first she asks whether her interviewer is comfortable recording a subject on the move. “I just want to make sure you’ll be able to get what you need,” she says. “Part of me is you.”

She means that she recorded lots of interviews herself while researching Sell/Buy/Date, in which she examines the sex industry through the personae of fictional characters affected by prostitution and pornography.

But on a deeper level, “part of me is you” sums up Jones’ approach to her art — the empathy she uses, the way a sculptor uses clay, to build up her roles. She grew up watching and admiring the “unique tribe of people who embody multiple characters” — Lily Tomlin, Tracey Ullman, John Leguizamo, Whoopi Goldberg. Back in 2004, her off-Broadway solo show Bridge and Tunnel, in which she portrayed New Yorkers of multiple races and backgrounds, made her a star on the NYC theater scene (and earned her a Special Tony Award after its move to Broadway in 2006).

In Sell/Buy/Date, which premiered in New York in 2016, Jones plays a sociology professor in the future, teaching her students about the sex industry back in the dark ages of 2019 — her curriculum also touches on the politics of our era (Trump) and other figures who’ve rocked the cultural landscape around sexual power dynamics (Harvey Weinstein and the #MeToo movement). She shows her students interviews with men and women of many ethnicities and ages — all of whom she portrays, using only her voice, her body and a prop or two, switching between identities with less apparent effort than drivers exert to shift gears.

This Geffen run is L.A.’s first extended chance to see Jones onstage; it’s also her first opportunity to get to know theater audiences here, who tend to skew older, wealthier and whiter than the houses she came up with. She’s already made efforts to diversify things, working with the Geffen staff to get tickets out beyond its subscriber base. 

“My goal is always democratizing the theater,” she says. “I want the traditional folks, but I also want their grandkids and their neighbors, people who have never been in a theater before and are shouting out ‘mm-hmm.’ I don’t want to sound too earnest — well, I don’t know, earnestness is the new snark — but trying to be the glue in times like these is one of the gifts I get to experience.”

Jones is tall and walks really fast, so it’s nice when she reaches the top of a seemingly endless staircase at the Geffen and settles onto a couch in the greenroom to continue the conversation about how her work resonates in the Trump era and the age of #MeToo.

You first performed Sell/Buy/Date right before the 2016 presidential election. Did you have any idea of how relevant the piece would become?
I’m so sorry it feels so prescient! I started working on it in 2014. At that time Donald Trump was in it. I didn’t actually portray him, but another character referred to him as a “mentor” for his particular brand of predatory behavior around women. And then I excised him from the script, because I didn’t want to dignify him with a presence in my play. And four years later he has very much reasserted himself, in a way that I can’t ignore, and nobody can ignore. 

So has the show changed to reflect that?
There have been changes, for sure. When we came to L.A., we got to — I feel funny using this term — “home in.” The expression is “home in!” Homing pigeons! But the entire culture thinks it’s “hone,” and if you say “home,” they think you’re wrong. I “narrowed my focus” to have an honest look at this reality in which we find ourselves, with the dispassionate detachment that a historian in the future can have. Where I want to rant and rave, she’s simply going to state facts. She’s not going to have to do what I did — get a mouth guard because I was grinding my teeth so hard at night.

One of my favorite moments in the play is when the professor defines “dieting” to her class as “restricting food intake on purpose.” I felt a surge of hope at the idea that there might be a time in which college students don’t know what dieting is. How did you come up with the idea of the sociologist of the future?
I remember watching another brilliant, powerfully executed piece of theater, which I won’t name, that tackled sex trafficking. Such a riveting piece of theater, and yet I wanted to slit my wrists at the end. I told people, “I saw something incredible; please don’t go.” And I thought, is there a way not to have that be the result? My goal was a comedy about this issue.

This show predates the recent revelations about sexual abuse in Hollywood and #MeToo and Time’s Up. Did you need to update the script after all that went down?
Not really. I felt that the times had caught up with the piece. Back in 2014, it felt like I was the only one talking about this. Of course that’s not true. There’s a robust feminist movement of women of my generation, and third- and fourth-wave feminists, and young women like the character in my show who’s a millennial feminist, extremely vocal — she’s kind of what I think of as a Beyonce feminist, like, “I’m gonna shake my ass, and I’m gonna decide the terms of how you experience the shaking of my ass, but you’re not gonna tell me what I can and cannot do with all of this.” So I wasn’t the only one talking about it, but it just felt like this tsunami of energy rose up to meet what I was hoping to accomplish. It’s a thing. Suddenly it’s understood that time’s up. And it’s very disorienting for everybody, even those who are euphoric about it. I have experienced a kind of confusion around, “OK, the casting couch is gone, now where do I sit?” And I’m glad it’s gone, but we need to move some new furniture in here. 

Did you always portray men as well as women?
When did I first do a male character? I was dating rappers, a couple of guys who were really smart, really charismatic, great, talented — I won’t mention any names. I remember thinking, “This character’s so good, and this is a performance of masculinity that I have now spent so much time around, I could do it myself.” Lily Tomlin not only did men, she did a black man named Pervis Hawkins, this Marvin Gaye-smooth type of dude. And I was, like, “Oh, Lily! I am here for this!” I wanted to explode my own notions of the limitations of my body and my gender and how I’m supposed to be ladylike in order to be attractive to men. I remember being afraid of that, thinking, “If I’m too authentic at this, I’ll never get another date.” Now I don’t care.