She has one of those faces that leave you guessing about her nationality. And when she opens her mouth on stage, you would be even more intrigued, says KALPANA SHARMA of Sarah Jones.
Trenchant critic and not a part of the "ra-ra" brigade.
IS she Indian, Pakistani, perhaps Japanese, no, no, Chinese, possibly Latina, most likely African-American or Caribbean? Sarah Jones is none of these and all of these. Perhaps we should call her a world citizen, even if she does carry an American passport.
In fact, this 28-year-old poet, actress, New Yorker has African-American, Caribbean and European blood running through her veins and revolutionary ideas running through her head. Sarah Jones is an exceptional actor, one who uses her craft to convey a message.
I first met Sarah Jones three years ago, on a hot, steamy June evening when she performed at the Judson Memorial Church in New York's Washington Square. For almost an hour, this tall striking-looking young woman kept an audience of several hundred riveted to their seats as she transported them to other worlds, made them laugh and weep. With only a pale green scarf as a prop, she walked them through the lives of Indian, Japanese, French, American, and Latina women. At the end of the performance, she had given them more than a glimpse of the range of violence and discrimination that women around the world face.
"Women Can't Wait" was the show that Sarah Jones performed in June 2000, five years after the International Conference on Women held at Beijing, where United Nations members made a slew of commitments to empower women and change their lives. In New York, those promises were being held to account by women's groups and non-governmental organisations.
A year later, Sarah Jones was in India, performing "Women Can't Wait" in theatres, open gardens and college auditoria. Everywhere, she got a huge response. The simplicity of the stories, the style of performance and the sincerity of the actor got through to anyone who watched.
Ms Jones' last visit to India was just days after September 11, 2001. This time she came in December, within days of the high drama that accompanied the televised capture of a dishevelled, disoriented Saddam Hussein, apparently by American soldiers.
Sarah Jones is not part of the "ra-ra brigade" that applauds the American President for his "war against terror". She is, and has been, a trenchant critic. Her latest show, "Waking the American Dream", which she performed last month in New Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata, makes that apparent. It exposes the reality of the immigrant experience in the "land of the free and the home of the brave".
The experience is not a happy one, regardless of the colour of your skin, whether you are escaping political persecution in Nigeria or escaping war in Vietnam, or have migrated in the hope of a better life than the one you had in India or Pakistan. Using different jackets as a prop this time, Sarah Jones tells the stories of old and new migrants, men and women. Through different forms of poetry, she skilfully conveys the lived experience of immigrants in the U.S.
So what makes a gifted actress, who was singled out by Time magazine in its "People to watch" column, choose to write and perform shows like "Waking the American Dream" and "Women Can't Wait" which disturb and force audiences to think?
Sarah Jones spoke, over a late lunch and with a voice that was in danger of disappearing, about her concerns about present-day America, about direct and indirect forms of censorship and how this will affect the future generations of Americans.
"The United States has a long, unfortunate tradition of discriminating against the voices of the Left," she says. She points out that American history is replete with stories of discrimination against women, against native Americans, against people of colour, against people of Japanese descent who were incarcerated during World War II and against workers.
But, she suggests, "along with that repression came resistance among all the groups mentioned. People tried to eke out a life for themselves in accordance with the constitutional promises. Thus, we had the suffrage movement, the abolition movement, the fight for women's rights, for workers' rights, for the rights of indigenous people."
Sarah Jones believes that all these movements have contributed to what America is today. "I would not be sitting here if not for the grassroots movement," she says. "It's not the State that has done this. If the State had its way, none of us would be here. There's no moral virtue on the part of the government that has ever gotten us further along creating a truly democratic or socially just America."
It is this belief in grassroots America that informs and motivates Sarah Jones, the artist. But her efforts are in direct conflict with media monopolies and the political climate in post 9/11 America. She was one of the first artists to be censored for a poem/song titled "Your Revolution" that she performed on an independent radio station in 2001.
Jones points out that for artists like her, who are not bringing in big revenues to the major record companies, there are no options but to perform on such independent radio stations. She says, the myth of a free media is exposed by the fact that most media in the U.S. is controlled by three major media companies "that are also in bed with the government".
A clear illustration of these links emerged when the Clear Channel banned the popular group the Dixie Chicks, who won a Grammy Award, because members of the group made an adverse comment about the American President while on tour in Europe.
The chairman of the Clear Channel, which owns close to 1,200 radio stations in the U.S., is one of the largest donors to the Bush campaign.
Sarah Jones' experience was a little different. Her poem, inspired by the legendary African-American poet Gil Scott Heron's "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" caught on. It was, she says, an attempt to expose the manner in which hip-hop, a kind of music of dissent, had been coopted and changed by the very forces that it set out to expose. "The music that I loved and died," she says. "So I took lyrics of the pop songs I heard on the radio and turned them around, recontextualised them."
Unfortunately, someone raised an objection to the lyrics. And her poem was banned. The body doing the censoring in America is the very same institution that gives out licenses to radio stations the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Jones points out that around the same time as the FCC ordered her poem off the air, some objections were raised about the lyrics of popular singer Eminem's songs. But these objections were set aside while the FCC censored Sarah Jones. But rather than accepting this, she became the first artist in the U.S. to successfully challenge the FCC's censorship policies.
Sarah Jones believes that the nexus between big business, the media and government is the biggest threat to press and artistic freedom in the U.S. She points out, for instance, that some years ago, even though the current U.S. Secretary of State, Colin Powell, was on the board of one of the biggest U.S. media conglomerates, AOL Time Warner, his son, Michael Powell headed the FCC as it decided to roll back rules about media monopoly. Mainstream media did not comment about this obvious conflict of interest. "When you don't have journalists who can hold you accountable, it's a free fall," she says.
At the same time, the present U.S. Government, she holds, is using the excuse of national security to clamp down on dissent. September 11, she says, was the perfect excuse "for George Bush and his cronies to clamp down on immigrants, and to try and convince the American people of all types that they should relinquish all of their civil liberties in the name of security even when there is no logical reason for believing that this will make us safer."
It is this, she says, that "is creating a climate of censorship, of anti-feminist politics."
"I want people to know," says Sarah Jones, "that the U.S. is in a crisis of conscience and that many generations will suffer for the mentality and the action of the Bush administration and his cronies all over the world. Americans are humans like everyone else. They empathise with people's suffering. But you should see the things that are being put out by the media."
As the time comes closer for Sarah Jones to save what voice she has left for her evening performance in Mumbai, she gives one last passionate sound-byte: "I am convinced that either we will continue down the path that some people in-charge have chosen and self-destruct or if we survive, it'll be because of the voices of those demanding revolution."
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