It felt like a conference call, although the only two people on the line were myself and Sarah Jones: playwright, poet, monologist, actor, activist, latter-day conscience of the theater–and incredibly gifted mimic.

Apropos of nothing, suddenly I was talking with Mohammed, a Pakistani accountant from Brooklyn whose rumbly, avuncular baritone assured me “just because I am counting the numbers–like you say, counting the beans–that doesn’t mean that also I don’t have poetry in my soul.”

A moment later, Lorraine, a gracious Jewish grandmother from Long Island (with a voice that could cut through glass), regaled me with a protest piece she wrote. Its name? “No–Really–Please–Don’t Get Up.” Presumably, somewhere still in the midst, was Jones herself.

In retrospect, it was an appropriate introduction to an artist the Wall Street Journal has credited with “non-stop body snatching” and “a near-miraculous knack for slipping into other people’s skins.” Since she began her public performance career at New York’s Nuyorican Poets Cafe in 1997 (winning its Grand Slam poetry contest that same year), she’s created four one-woman shows and performed to audiences at Lincoln Center, Kennedy Center, the Apollo Theater–and Riker’s Island.

Each of those works (Surface Transit, Women Can’t Wait, Waking the American Dream and the current bridge and tunnel) explore territories similar to those Whoopi Goldberg and Lily Tomlin did earlier in their careers, probing individual lives for universal significance, with a sharp, savvy, politically progressive wit.

(Actually, perhaps the word “upstage” is more appropriate. After all, when comparing bridge‘s off-Broadway run last year with the Broadway revival of Whoopi, the New York Times concluded, “If Ms. Jones’s characterizations have the clarity and focus of digital photographs, Ms. Goldberg’s now resemble pictures drawn in sand.”)

Jones’ shows have presented a cavalcade of multi-ethnic characters literally spanning the globe–characters the performer instantly switches between in plain sight, in raw displays of transformative acting.

No matter the culture or part of the world the character comes from, the voice is always pitch-perfect. “It isn’t just accents; it’s details of tone É and phrasing,” noted Margo Jefferson in the Times. “It is knowing speech patterns like “Ah” and “OK, OK,” or the way a nervous teenage girl speeds into high-pitched overdrive.”

Then there are Jones’ considerable physical gifts as an actor, which enable her to morph from a six-foot-plus “recovering hip-hop head” like Rashid to the fragile shell of Lorraine.

But times are changing for Ms. Jones. Before bridge and tunnel‘s big splash off-Broadway last year (nailing an Obie Award, a Theatre World Award and a Drama League Award), the playwright/performer toiled in the relative obscurity of New York’s downtown art scene. She jettisoned a promising shot on an MTV show, telling The Progressive magazine she didn’t do what she termed “bitch, nigger, shit” comedy.

(Several years later, she’s getting another chance at television–on a different network. The Bravo channel premiered her new special, The Sarah Jones Show, Sunday night, Feb. 20.)

Her greatest fame–or notoriety–before that came when the Federal Communication Commission fined a Portland, Ore. station $7,000 in 1999 for playing her hip-hop deconstruction of misogyny in rap music with DJ Vadim, “Your Revolution.” Outraged that the FCC would ban a critique of a genre it permits on stations everywhere–and incensed when the commission refused to specify the “unmistakable patently offensive sexual references” on which it based the fine–Jones filed suit against the FCC.

She won–four years later–when the commission reversed its ruling in 2003, making her the first performance artist to successfully sue the FCC over decency standards.

Somewhere in the middle, things started getting big. After screen legend Meryl Streep saw her work, she decided to produce Jones’ off-Broadway production of bridge and tunnel.

Indeed, the booking at Duke was initially seen as something of a coup, since Jones was coming off a final, pre-Broadway workshop production in Berkeley, Calif. immediately before it. Theater sources had said she would open on Broadway almost immediately afterward in March.

Then they said it would be April.

Now a Feb. 15 press release says bridge and tunnel will open in the fall, since “the right intimate Broadway theater isn’t available at this time.”

We spoke with Jones–and her people–during the last week of her run at Berkeley. Though she has never been to Duke before, she talked about her upcoming trip and performance of Waking the American Dream as if she were returning to a favorite old neighborhood she hasn’t seen in a while.

In a sense, it seems she is.

Sarah Jones: Waking the American Dream is the kernel of what became bridge and tunnel. It’s sort of an earlier incarnation. At the time, these were people I wanted not so much to bring to mainstream theater.

Waking had been commissioned by the Ford Foundation and the National Immigration Forum, a policy group from Washington. They were interested in highlighting the everyday lives of immigrants, in order to help combat some of the pre-September 11 misinformation, myths and stereotypes–and all-around negative impressions that seemed to be out there in the mainstream in an increasingly right-wing political climate throughout the country.

They were not just everyday immigrant stories, from the perspective you might see too often in the newspaper in terms of tragedy or victimology. We wanted to focus instead on people who love life, people’s senses of humor, and everything else that makes us all human.

They wanted me to be sort of a metaphorical and literal, theatrical, bridge between Americans who were born here and Americans who are new here.

That’s how it originated. That’s what I get to do at Duke. And it’s really close to my heart, because it’s the way the work originally occurred to me–before we said, “Oh, let’s dress it up, add this here, or add that there, for mainstreaming purposes.” Waking serves more my focus on social justice.

I like to think of Waking the American Dream as all of the fun that I get to have with bridge and tunnel in sort of a more pure form. It’s actually something I enjoy doing as much if not more than bridge and tunnel; with all the lights and staging–minimal though it may be–bridge is still not as much the kind of organic experience I first had doing Waking.

Here, the bells and whistles of the off-Broadway theater are not the focus. The main focus are these people, their words and their courage to get up there and share their experiences with people who are very much like them. They know what it is to have to pick up and move all their belongings and loved ones halfway across the world. But they’re also coming from divergent backgrounds, and have any number of different opinions about the experience of being new Americans and their own versions of the American Dream.

The Independent: These characters all converge on a cafe somewhere in Queens. Right there, we know they’re not necessarily in the cultural forefront–or the financial one, either. And yet they’ve convened a night for each other–a night for immigrants young and old–to speak and listen to one another. How does this compare with your experiences in performance poetry?

Jones: I like the fact that there is a poetry community here, whether people learn about it through Def Poetry Jam that Russell Simmons brought to television and Broadway, or poetry slams that have reached almost mainstream status. People have started to hear these kinds of “poetry rumblings.”

(Assistant Director and fiance) Steve Colman was in Def Poetry Jam on Broadway, and we both come out of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in NYC, so it was not so far-fetched for us to imagine this space where all of these diverse voices found a literal and figurative common ground.

I think that kind of coming together makes a lot of sense–for immigrants coming from various walks of life to find commonality in their love of this art form. Some of them come at it through hip hop, some of them come at it through Mayakovsky and the Russian tradition. Whatever it is, one thing that connects people, in a global connective tissue, is this love of poetry and story. You can find it everywhere from South Asia to East Asia, from West Africa to East Africa to South America. Wherever you go, there’s a tradition of story and poetry. Whether it’s Rumi or Shakespeare, it doesn’t matter.

And then on top of that, because of anti-immigrant sentiment, it might not be the safest thing to get up at your local poetry reading in the suburbs of Anytown, USA if you’re the only Pakistani guy in town. If you want to share what you have to say, it might not be so easy.

How would you introduce some of the characters we’ll meet next Monday?

Mohammed Ali is the host, an accountant from Pakistan who’s been here for 25 years. Lorraine Levine was a very little girl coming over here from Eastern Europe in the 1930s, so she has the perspective of being an older immigrant–which is important. We’re talking about “new Americans,” and there’s a whole new wave of immigration, but there also was an earlier wave around the turn of the century–plus the massive upheaval during World War II.

Bao Viet-Dinh is the quintessential slam poet guy; he’s got a variety of influences. There’s lots of real people trying to use the platform for advancing a social justice message, and he’s coming out of that camp. Rashid is this African-American guy, a hip-hop head who actually stumbles into the reading. He has his own take on new Americans, on how they feature in his life as a guy who was born here, and particularly as a black man.

We also hear from Rose-Aimee Sylvent. She is Haitian American. She sort of has her own take on how discrimination works if you’re an immigrant. Juan Jose is a Mexican-American man who is a union organizer. He was disabled during his pursuit of the American Dream.

There are more. Actually, I vary the show depending on where I’m going to be. That’s the other fun thing about Waking: I get to bring back characters that I miss. I don’t have as much flexibility with bridge and tunnel.

So it actually is more fun and challenging for me.

I hosted an open mike for over three years at a coffeehouse in Chapel Hill. So I know firsthand that people come to these things for very different reasons. Some of their work sounded like birth screams. Others were like that line from Horton Hears a Who, when the people are saying, “We are here, we are here,” trying to punch a message through. I really had the sense that for a number of them it was almost like they had no available mirrors

Yes, they were looking for their reflections …

They were trying to have something of their experience actually show up in a meaningful way, and have it seen, heard, acknowledged and accepted by other people.

If you feel completely alone in your experience, you don’t have the fuel you need, especially in times like these, to confront the kinds of assaults on your basic humanity that we know one can experience as an American, even if you were born here–and much less if you’re an immigrant who’s subject to all kinds of abuses and deportation and people yelling at you because how dare you speak two languages instead of just one.

When you think about that need for reflection, some sort of accurate representation of your experience, that just validates it, affirms it and gives it a place, a face…. It’s always about creating a space in which people feel free to give voice to their story. However marginalized it might be under other circumstances, for that 10 minutes it becomes center stage; it becomes the focal point for everyone in the room.

So if you are a Chinese-American woman who never sees herself represented on TV, for those 10 minutes you are everyone’s focus, and it’s not just as some cardboard, one-dimensional stereotype from a bad movie script. It’s your real life, you are flesh and blood, you are whoever you want to convey for that time.

Technology can be used to unite and bridge, but so frequently it seems to reinforce loneliness, isolation and disempowerment. Instead of opening up stories, so many seem squashed, hushed, censored or erased instead.

Unfortunately that’s absolutely true. Some aspects of technology even alienate one from oneself. Rather than having to interrogate our feelings, or find ways to cope with the world around us through community and other traditional means, there are all these other things you can do. People sit and play Playstation for hours as a form of therapy. You can surf the Web forever.

Your question really goes to what I’m hoping to bring to Durham. It’s the core of what unites us as people from any number of experiences–whether its our class diversity, our different experiences in terms of who we are as women or men, whatever our sexual orientation, our religious background, our geographical background, our abilities–whoever we are, there’s a fundamental core of human dignity that I uphold. It drives every person who comes to the poetry reading.

I’m interested in stripping away the technology, trying to lay bare that very beautiful part of each of those people. I hope you can hear it through their accents. You can hear it–I wouldn’t even say in spite of, but because–they’re newer English language learners in some cases. Or because they bring a multiplicity of viewpoints to what the American Dream at its best can be. And because they bring a kind of vulnerability and honesty to the truth of this political climate.

I hope that enables us to start to bridge the chasm that this technological and political moment has created for us. Great things happen, people come together across continents because of the Internet. But we’re sort of being cut off from one another at other levels because of our Fox News-soundbite approach to understanding the rest of the world.

We are so disconnected from one another in so many ways. This is one way to reattach those most basic connectors between people. By sharing our words, our worldview, our beliefs, our ways of loving and living and bearing up under the pressure of being Americans, whether we’re new at it or not.

A monologue by Sarah Jones
Bao Viet-Dinh
(young Vietnamese-American man, nondescript “standard American” accent, wearing an open black kung fu shirt)

Peace, how is everybody doin’. My name is Bao. This poem right here is untitled.

(He steps back from the microphone for a moment, eyes closed, fists held up to his forehead, in serious slam/performance poet preparation mode. He then steps back to the mic with fiery delivery.)

This is not an
Asian lotus blossom
Love poem
This is not an ode
To Bruce Lee or Dustin Nguyen
Or a celebration of my Midwestern … poet … cadence
This is not an authentic immigrant
Experience piece
It’s not that Vietnamese-American
Honor student
Returns to Saigon with his Anglo wife
Brought to you by Toyota and LaChoy
This is not a special presentation
Right after Nova
And before Frontline
Sponsored by viewers like you
This is not a teary-eyed reunion story
A video diary
About finding my roots
And then eating them
This is not a model
Minority poem
About hardworking
Straight “A” students
Who find freedom on TRL
This is not
The part where I get drunk and sing
Folksongs for my white Frat Brothers
Do my best impression of Long Duk Dong
Or win an Oscar
For Crouching Tailor Hidden Drycleaner
This is not the scene where I share ancient Chinese secrets
I’m Vietnamese, remember?

Sarah Jones performs Waking the American Dream on Monday, Feb. 28, 8 p.m. at Duke’s Reynolds Theater. Tickets are $10 and can be purchased by calling 684-4444.