Sarah Jones and the Performance of Ethnicity
Sarah Jones is an activist who spreads her message from the stage, portraying characters of many different ethnic backgrounds and in a monologue from each person, discussing issues of ethnicity, diversity, and social justice. Many of these characters are based on people she knew or observed while growing up in Queen’s New York.
I had the pleasure of seeing Jones when she came to speak at Smith College on Otelia Cromwell day, Smith’s annual celebration of diversity. In the personas of a white businessman who was uncomfortable with political correctness, a middle-aged immigrant from China who hoped that Asian-Americans would be recognized beyond their stereotypes, a young black rapper who spoke in favor of racial diversity but was squeamish about homosexuality, an elderly Jewish woman who thought America was going down the right path with racial awareness, and more , Sarah Jones spoke with passion and humor about diversity (or lack thereof) at top-notch liberal arts colleges. Now, remembering this performance, I recall seeing a middle-aged white man, a Chinese-American woman, a young black man, and a very feisty older Jewish woman. I know, of course, that these characters and more were all represented by one young black woman, but she does such an incredible job of meeting assumptions about how people of a certain ethnic background should act and sound that it’s easy to forget that these characters were all portrayed by one person.
One of my favorite characters was Lorraine Levine, the quirky old Jewish lady who expressed her pleasure that young people had helped Obama’s election campaign with “your myface and your spacebook.” (One thing I find special about Jones’ work is that she talks about serious and often painful issues of ethnic diversity in a very funny way!) Seeing Jones’ performance got my thinking about the frequently-asked question “what does it mean to be Jewish?” Sarah Jones does an amazing job of capturing the accent and mannerisms of anybody’s New York Jewish Grandma, even tossing in a few phrases of Yiddish. If these characteristics can be perfectly portrayed by a young woman of no Jewish background, maybe our notions of what defines ethnicity are a little too simple.
The following clip, “What Can I Do?”, is from the 2008 Aspen Ideas Festival. We meet Lorraine around a minute into the clip.
Gwen is JWA's new and fabulous summer intern. She is studying history at Smith College.