In “Sell/Buy/Date,” Sarah Jones mediates/ponders present issues and future realities, through an exploration of utopian and dystopian societies. These societies struggle with many issues we currently face: sexism, abuse, prejudice and more.
Sarah Jones’ “Sell/Buy/Date” is a brilliant and strange piece of theatre, deeply involved in the past and present, but unabashedly forward looking in its conception. A fascinating piece of dramatic speculative fiction, the play puts the audience in the position of a class in a future university, lectured on the perils of misogyny and gendered violence after an attempt by a student to trade sex for a good grade. To educate students and prevent future “outbreaks of sexism,” this professor, herself the daughter and sister of sex trade survivors, uses a virtual reality software called “Bio-empathetic Resonant Technology” (BERT) to relive the experiences of those affected by the sex trade, and present them to students.
The show deals with profound trauma, and many of the stories are deeply tragic, but Jones retains buoyancy throughout. Even the darkest tales are laced with humor, and her impressions are immensely entertaining, at once caricatures and deeper appreciations of the lives behind the stories.
Technically, Jones is profoundly talented. Portraying multiple characters can be difficult for any actor, but despite the strain she manages to convey several dozen unique characters with their own voices. College students, drug dealers, prostitutes, sex trade moguls and New Jersey housewives all come to life on the sparse, minimalist canvas of the set. Most of them seem so natural that it is as if any of these voices could be Jones’ everyday voice. An audience member could close their eyes during any point in the show and realistically imagine that, instead of Jones herself, they are being spoken to by, for instance, a middle-aged Russian male immigrant who owns a Florida brothel or a Midwestern teen working at a Hooters style “Breastaurant.”
Within the frame narrative of the lecture, these stories provide a timeline of the rise of a legalized and unrestricted sex trade within the U.S. that commodified women’s bodies and lead to even unhealthier attitudes about gender then we have today. The frame society of the lecture is utopian, but the America of the 2030s, ’40s and ’50s, where the stories are set, is deeply dystopian. Both visions are deeply realized by Jones’ superb character and environment work, especially that of the far future, where the need for the sex trade was eliminated by an equitable society.
When asked at length after the show about the future world she has imagined, Jones responded that she knows everything about it; from what people there eat for breakfast to their attitudes towards gender, race and class. The background work she has put into her vision is not able to always show visibly within less then two hours of performance, but they deepen her piece and its impact as a work of speculative fiction. It is a compelling utopia presented in a work that is focused on many all too present problems.
I left the theater wanting to know as much as possible about the egalitarian world she describes. In this, “Sell/Buy/Date” is almost unique. It unabashedly posits a better future in a market of media defined by tragedy and pessimism. This optimism in the face of adversity is refreshing.
Less refreshing is the all-too-real dystopia that precedes the utopia. Jones’s characters live in a world of routine abuse of women, massive gulfs in income and a sex trade that, while immensely harmful, has become a banal part of life. The denouement of the piece, in which Jones’s professor character relives her mother’s experience, is heartbreaking in its depiction of a woman harmed by systematic abuse, resilient and hopeful, but at the same time full of despair. Jones is most certainly not in agreement with those who would fully legalize the sex trade, and while the play never fully goes into heavy-handed polemic territory, it is clear that Jones views the sex trade as deeply harmful. She does not have many kind words for those who would normalize the sex trade, though she is willing to convey their arguments to the audience. Decriminalization of the workers themselves is, after much deliberation, proffered as a solution.
“Sell/Buy/Date” is not without its failings. The speeding up of the narrative towards the end and the poorly explained nature of the shows Deus ex Machina solution (an epidemic of heart disease amongst men resulting from rampant gender inequality) harm the otherwise compelling nature of the show. Jones has to find a way to her egalitarian far future from her dystopian near one. But she is not quite able to get us convincingly there.
Both visions are real and compelling, but the bridge between them is not quite there yet. Jones seems to recognize this. Her performance during the transition from dystopia to utopia is not as strong as the rest of the show. It is as if she is still figuring this out. When the show returns to New York this September, I hope she will have found her way. I intend to see the results, and encourage anyone who enjoys provocative, timely and unabashedly speculative works to see it as well.
Info on show: Sarah Jones is a Obie award-winning playwright and actor. “Sell/Buy/Date” previewed in workshop this January and will be returning to NYC in September.