Following its 2016 Manhattan Theater Club presentation, Sarah Jones’s Sell/Buy/Date is back in the city for an encore engagement at New York Live Arts. Below is an update of twi-ny’s original review, with relevant information added.
In 2006, British playwright and actress Sarah Jones won a Special Tony Award (and an earlier Obie) for her one-woman show Bridge and Tunnel, in which she played multiple characters, shining a light on New York City’s immigrant population. It took a decade, but she returned three years ago with her follow-up, another one-woman multiple-identity tour de force, Sell/Buy/Date, which revives some characters from her previous works while adding new ones; the production is now back by popular demand, running at New York Live Arts September 12-15 and 18-21. It’s late-twenty-first-century America, and Dr. Serene Campbell is teaching a class on the sex business, leading her students through a series of BERT modules, bio-empathetic resonant technology that dates back to 2017. Using this imaginary technology like oral histories, she tells her students, “We will be experiencing different bodies, different ages, what were then called ‘races’ or ‘ethnic groups,’ as you’ll remember from Unit One, and along the gender continuum, we’ll be encountering males as well as females — it was quite binary at that time. Remember, these are Personal History modules — the focus today is on feeling each person’s experience, so, before we begin, how many people have your emotional shunts engaged?”
She then proceeds to embody seventeen characters interviewed throughout the decades about the commercial sex trade, examining the reaction in the recent past to prostitution, pornography, and exotic dancing. “Chronologically advanced” Jewish bubbe Lorraine L. talks about trying to enhance her sexual relationship with her husband by searching for porn on the internet. Post–Valley Girl Bella, named after feminist activist Bella Abzug, is a “sex work studies major, minoring in social media with a concentration on notable YouTube memes” who cohosts “the biweekly pole-dancing party . . . called ‘Don’t Get All Pole-emical.” Jamaican No Fakin’ is a Caribbean prostitute at a sex workers rally who is carrying an unseen sign that says “No Justice, No Piece.” She defends what she does, noting, “You find me somebody who don’t hate some part of their job. There’s a lotta things I hate about doing this, but the money is not one of them.” And New York Domini-Rican Nereida angrily declares, “It just makes me so sick that we are all supposed to care about the same human rights, at least, that’s why we’re all here for this Feminist Plenary, but I mean, if one more of these so called ‘sex work advocates’ calls me anti-sex, I swear to god. I’m gonna be, like, first of all, I love sex. Sex is amazing. But what you are having is not sex.”
Dr. Campbell also calls up interviews of members of the male species as she walks around Dane Laffrey’s futuristic set, a spare, antiseptic classroom with a podium, a file cabinet, a floor sparsely outlined with lights, and a projection screen at the back. “Yes, of course men were having sex as well, but you’ll remember from the reading, what were male sluts called?” she asks the class. “Very good, they were called ‘men.’” Among the male characters in the show are frat boy and Grand Theft Auto fan Andrew “AV” Vanderbeek, Russian raunchpreneur Sergei Ledinov, Los Angeles pimp Cookie Chris (“Even with what I was doing, you know, exploiting women and whatnot, I had a rep for being real sweet about it”), and Native American comedian Gary (“I’m usually most popular on college campuses, whenever they wanna do their Diversity Day or Hey, We’re Not All White week”). But as much as the treatment of women and sex workers needs to change, not all change turns out to be progress.
Jones (The Foundation, Surface Transit), who was born in Baltimore and raised in Boston, DC, and Queens in a multiracial family, has created a fascinating future devoid of organized religion, bachelor parties, unpaid internships, personal security guards, violent video games, a livable New Jersey, and mobile phones, where people can travel freely between countries and there is no discrimination of any kind. “They did not believe one has an automatic right to live equally,” Dr. Campbell says about people from the past. It’s a potent point, especially given the vitriol present in this year’s lurid presidential election campaign. In researching Sell/Buy/Date, Jones met with sex workers around the world, visiting Sweden, Germany, Korea, India, Las Vegas, France, Ireland, Scotland, the Netherlands, and the Dominican Republican, helping her create believable men and women who share a wide range of thoughts about commercial sex. She smartly captures the humanity in the industry, even if it is a bit lighthearted at times for such a serious topic, while Drama Desk–nominated director Carolyn Cantor (Fly by Night, Indian Summer) ably uses sound (by Bray Poor) and light (by Eric Southern) to smoothly transition between time periods. However, a subplot involving Dr. Campbell’s mother’s identity as a “survivor” feels like a forced tribute to those who have paved the way for gender equality. Jones, who once declared, “The revolution will not happen between these thighs” (the late Gil Scott-Heron was a family friend), gives a superb performance, instantly taking control of the audience; she has a natural confidence as a teacher that is intoxicating. Sell/Buy/Date offers a lively and timely look at a controversial subject that has continued to raise eyebrows throughout the centuries.