Bridge and Tunnel
nytheatre.com review by Matt Freeman
February 1, 2006
Often theatre puts the more central mediums of the culture in high relief. Oscars are in the air, and among the nominees is the film Crash, which depicts an ensemble of racially diverse characters, all with their racism and hypocrisy simmering throughout. If I have heard any criticism of Crash, it has been that it makes its point by discounting any nod towards racial harmony, as if we are forever struggling against almost inherent prejudices, that only extreme circumstances force us to reconsider.
Balancing the recently en vogue grit and glamour of racial discord is Bridge and Tunnel, an expressly positive hug to the modern immigrant experience, raising each of its many characters to their most noble and accepting forms.
How does Sarah Jones make this script's rose-colored glasses seem so honest and provocative? It seems to me that she lifts her characters out of the day-to-day drudgery of endless work hours and struggling to pay rent. She places them in an oasis, in “beautiful South Queens,” and lets them use the common language of storytelling and poetry. If anything, Bridge and Tunnel is just as much about the power of expression and poetry as it is about the immigrant experience. It’s about how the opportunity to tell our stories lifts us up. And yet with that, Jones avoids the pitfalls that could have made this all too safe, and gives us the sort of idealistic vision that would have made the late Coretta Scott King proud.
Sarah Jones, whose performance has already been heralded in her run at the Culture Project and is now performing Bridge and Tunnel at the Helen Hayes Theatre on Broadway, is a mimic of a high order, but not only a mimic of voices and stances and emotions. She is a mimic of language.
I admit that when she started the piece, I thought it was solid, but her portrayals were clever, perfect, but pat. The old Jewish woman from Long Island who decries anti-Semitism and doesn’t understand rap music; the Pakistani who is under investigation; the homeless woman who tells us to turn off our cell phones. Each is a wonderful character, but they’re familiar enough, even if performed by this young woman who can wow us with the quick change.
Then she revealed a young, American Vietnamese male, angry slam poet, who sounded and moved exactly, precisely, like a young, American Vietnamese, male, angry slam poet. And the poem was the poem he should have given.
As it wears on, the awe of Ms. Jones’s formidable chops doesn’t wear off, but it is augmented by what a pleasure and a privilege it becomes to be in the presence of characters who are pouring out what amount to be a parade of beautiful souls.
Perhaps the most subversive thing in the evening is how she recasts the everyman. The truth is that the new James Stewart may well be a Pakistani man with the unfortunate name of Mohammed Ali. The image of a single white man struggling against a world that seem unfair (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) has been replaced in 2006 by the image of a heavily accented man, thrilled to be in a roomful of others who share his passions. In fact, the portrayal of this man by a 32-year-old black woman makes it all the more truthful. Jones is showing us the new common experience.
There is something about modern society, particularly New York hipster sensibility, that resists a positive vision. I’m sure that some will express that Sarah Jones isn’t showing the ugliness and difficulty that pervades everyday life. I found it a rare moment, a truly important one, to see something that isn’t built on a foundation of disaffection, and that doesn’t ever fall into the muck of Hallmark cards and Disney. After all, poetry can still bring people together; and that is cause for celebration.