Sarah Jones performed her one-woman show, “Sell/Buy/Date,” at the Bing Theater at the USC campus last month. The performance was a part of USC’s Visions and Voices series.
Directed by Carolyn Jones, the piece was set in a future world where a professor lectured on the sex industry in the United States and attitudes about sex work using media from interviews. The piece mentions the creation of ‘Bio Empathetic Resident Technology’ to collect interviews between 2020 and 2041. Sarah Jones played more than 20 characters, each with a unique physicality and dialect for each person. She played both the professor giving the lecture and the interviewees in the BERT modules.
Jones began writing the piece in 2012, but it still resonated with a current audience. In the talkback after the show, an audience member asked whether the news affected the piece, and Jones answered that “news keeps catching up with the show.” Her ability to keenly pick up on nuances in opinions about the sex industry and how it affects people’s lives showed up in the BERT modules presented in the play. While these were all fictional, it was clear how each event in Jones’ future had roots in our present.
The stories Sarah Jones told through the modules ran the gamut. She showed the perspectives of old and young, sex worker and pimp, educated and disadvantageous, and all without judgment from the actor. Her expertise in dialects paired with strong physical choices, Jones created nuanced perspectives of each story so that the audience could see the entire picture. She didn’t try to satirize any opinions and even if there was humor, Jones’ didn’t laugh with them. She accepted the humorous quirks of each character as if each character was proud of the people they were. Part of this has to do with the writing: every character is firm in their beliefs, even if they are only partway through their journey. In the talkback after the show, Sarah Jones called her presentation of the full spectrum of opinions and realities in the sex industry a “social justice practice” because of how it utilized empathy to educate the audience and make them consider the ramifications of these institutions.
The most impactful moment was at the end of the piece. The professor showed her mother’s module at the London conference for survivors of the sex industry. In the module, her mother was a teenager and sang a song she wrote to depict her moving forward from her past. This use of melody and poetic lyricism was a beautifully eloquent way to end a show that didn’t have any music in the sound design at all. The song left the audience with hope. The fact that it was the professor’s mother’s memory brought together all the main ideas Jones talks about with the piece: how close the sex industry is to our lives, how the stories of those who survived working in the sex industry must be honored, and how it is important that we don’t let single issues or events define our lives.
The design was simple but supported the piece. The white boxes in the background and the lighting (adapted by Yuki Nakase Link) on the corners of the floor gave a futuristic feel while also contributing to the tone or location of the modules. There were only three pieces of furniture on stage the entire play, and Jones did a great job of physically relating to empty space so that each module felt like it was in a different place without having to rely on excessive furniture or any costume changes. However, the costuming (Dane Laffrey) was rather contemporary rather than minimalist and futuristic, like the other design elements. Perhaps Laffrey and Jones imagined people a few decades from now will still wear skinny pants.
In the talkback after the show, a former sex worker from South Central L.A., Oree Friedman, answered questions and shared her story on stage along with Sarah Jones. Responding to the question: what can people do to help with issues in the sex industry, Oree Friedman said, “do your part [...] you don’t know how many people on campus don’t even know what happens three blocks from their school.” For Friedman, doing your part looks like calling the local police when you see someone hurt or harassed on the street. It looks like starting a conversation with people who have the privilege to ignore this issue in their day to day life. And this conversation is exactly what Sarah Jones began with “Sell/Buy/Date” and what she wants the audience to keep with them when they walk out of the theater.
To see what Sarah Jones is working on and where she will perform next, click here.