It’s probably not a coincidence that three of today’s best multicharacter monologists — to coin a paradoxical job title — are women of color: Anna Deavere Smith, Nilaja Sun, and Sarah Jones. All are exemplary actors who must at some point have found that the parts available to them were nothing compared to the parts they could write for themselves. Sun’s No Child … , based on her experience as a visiting drama teacher in a Bronx high school, was a stunner in 2006; she gave herself not just one role but 16. Smith’s Fires in the Mirror (1992) vivisected the Crown Heights riots; her Let Me Down Easy (2009) the failures of the health-care system. (Notes From the Field, a new piece about the “school-to-prison pipeline,” opens next month at Second Stage.) And Jones’s Bridge & Tunnel, featuring a hilariously diverse gallery of participants in a hip-hop poetry slam, won a special Tony Award in 2006. Though the women, as performers, all turn themselves into human kaleidoscopes, as playwrights they approach their material quite differently. Smith’s work is taken verbatim from interviews, while Sun shapes and condenses real people and events into an impressionistic group portrait. Jones, the poppiest of the three, focused in Bridge & Tunnel on the individuality of her characters; the wholly invented story that contained them was deeply secondary.
But something new is happening in Jones’s Sell/Buy/Date, which opens tonight at the Manhattan Theater Club’s 150-seat black-box space beneath City Center. The subject (as the punning title indicates) is the sex trade, from pornography to prostitution to trafficking, which is a broad enough rubric to allow a very satisfying range of voices. Some are familiar from Bridge & Tunnel, including the New York bubbe Lorraine, who here recalls the time she sought out online porn in hopes of arousing her detumescent husband. Also returning from the earlier show is the excitable “Domini-Rican” Nereida, now reconfigured as an anti-trafficking advocate. But most of the show’s 18 characters are new, and put Jones’s astounding mimetic and transformative abilities on brilliant display. They include Bella, a sex work studies major at a Bay Area university, with a minor in social media memes; Andrew Vanderbeek, a bachelor-party bro who doesn’t see how ogling a stripper is on the same continuum as whoring; Sergei Ledinov, the Russian “raunchrepreneur” behind the My Girl lifestyle brand; and Constance, an 18-year-old greeter at a resort called Les Grands Pitons, which, she tells us proudly, is “not just a breastaurant” but a “full-service sexual entertainment complex.”
As that sampling demonstrates, Sell/Buy/Date, unobtrusively directed by Carolyn Cantor, is not a current-events project. Rather, it’s a kind of speculative sex fiction that imagines the corporatization of desire from 2017 through at least 2050. In a frame device set even further in the future, an instructor named Serene Campbell, played by Jones as a charming brainiac Brit, teaches a class about those bad old days when gender was still quaintly thought of as binary, when something called “races” existed, and when the “automatic right” of all people to live equally was not yet recognized. (Also, most of New Jersey was still habitable.) By the “Dirty Thirties,” we learn, prostitution was legal in all states but Vermont; by the 2040s the resulting overfulfillment of men’s sexual urges had led to a male health crisis involving an epidemic of strokes, heart attacks, and crippling anxiety. Illustrating all of these developments, Campbell uses a system called BERT — “bio-empathetic resonant technology” — whose archived modules allow her students not just to hear and see interview subjects from the various periods but also to feel their emotions as if from the inside. Jones uses the system, too, in her case as a quick excuse to get to the impersonations that make up the bulk of the 90-minute play.
It’s a rococo frame, to be sure, and a bit rickety as well. Some of the writing in these sections comes off as bald reportage:
SERENE: So we hear each of the women, all circa 2017, attempting to reconcile competing societal messages around sex and empowerment. And this conflict often started in adolescence, in fact, the average age of an at-risk girl being introduced to commercial sex work was twelve or thirteen.
At other times, she goes for jokey (if pithy) commentary:
SERENE: You’ll remember from the reading what were male sluts called? Very good, they were called “men.”
It’s difficult to take these outer segments seriously, or to respond to them as drama, and they unfortunately weaken the inner story as well: The characters are constantly being hammered into an argument rather than being allowed their full independent interest. Many disappear just when you become engaged with them, and at least one outright dud, a Native American stand-up at a “porn comedy” awards show, ought to disappear sooner. But if there is some opportunism in the setup, Jones eventually makes it pay off when, about halfway through the play, she starts to buttress the frame by connecting Serene herself to the subject she is teaching. How she does this I’m not about to spoil, except to say that if our utopian future includes no racism or sexism, it has not quite eliminated inherited shame.
That’s Jones’s sweet spot: the errant feelings that give the lie to politics. Yes, it’s amusing when she has Serene exhibit a Barbie doll as if it were a dinosaur bone, saying she initially thought it was “an educational tool for anorexia prevention.” And it’s enlightening when she has Serene spell out the connection between closed borders and sex trafficking. But we don’t come to the theater for one-liners or lectures, however intelligent, we come for what happens, in Sell/Buy/Date, when the jokes and the argument merge into something much less easily classified, something fundamentally unique to each character. In Nereida, the play’s most compelling creation, that’s anger informed by intelligence and tempered by respect, as she punctures the illusions of those who laud sex workers as “empowered feminists.” She sees them rather as veterans “of a war on girls and women”; to the extent that Jones evidently does, too, she’s made, in Nereida and so many of her other astonishing selves, something far better than a mouthpiece.
Sell/Buy/Date is at City Center Stage II through November 13.