- Chief Los Angeles Critic
Walking into the intimate Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at the Geffen Playhouse, I noticed a minimalist black and white stage. As Tony Award-winning playwright and performer Sarah Jones enters, we meet her first of many characters, the poised, British professor Dr. Serene Campbell. Taking a seat on a pure white chair behind designer Dane Laffrey’s white lecture stand, and next to a white rolling file cabinet, we soon learn we are students in a futuristic college lecture hall. Jones brings a kaleidoscope of colors to the stage in her one-woman show through a medley of personalities.
She addresses us (her students) through BERT “bio-empathetic resonant technology.” This invention allows students to directly experience the emotions of people interviewed in the past, for her class to learn about the history of the sex industry.
Sell/Buy/Date made its world premier in 2016 at Manhattan Theatre Club in New York with Jones longtime collaborator and director Carolyn Cantor. Together they offer the audience a humanizing experience about the “oldest profession” prostitution and trafficking women.
We learn people now have emotional shunts that they can turn on, off and regulate. In between the honest, moving and sometimes humorous voices of different women and men, Jones takes a break from her class to have her VA (Virtual Assistant) connect with her superior and mother.
Lighting designer Elizabeth Harper alerts us to a change of character and voice of people we rarely see in the theater. Jones first becomes a “chronologically advanced” 88 year old, middle-class Jewish bubbe, donning glasses and discussing her first and only experience seeing internet porn “just for inspiration” to help spice up her marriage. Next, she transforms into a “Jamaican” (actually from Trinidad and The Virgin Islands, however “No fakin’ she is from Jamaican” rhymes better). We learn “prostitution” was once a term for sex worker as this young character shares how she held a sign at a rally “No Justice, No Piece,” as in “No piece of ass.” She became a sex worker after working as a domestic worker. “The demand for sex in wealthy countries was driven by women in poor countries seeking a better life.”
There is Bella the Bay Area college student and feminist, majoring in “Sex Work Studies” and host of a bi-weekly pole dancing party where they serve vegan Jello shots. She gives us insight to a generation that fights for “protecting sex workers’ legal freedoms and rights,” and believes men should be held accountable.
Each characters is distinctive with its own presence, mind and voice, including the men Jones becomes - a dude at a bachelor party and a pimp turned motivational speaker and life coach who shares “You get more hoes with honey and they bring you more money.”
Dr. Campbell tells us “While women were to look sexy, when they acted sexy, they were called sluts, yet male sluts were called men.”
Then we continue moving into the future where in 2020 there is a shift in feminist attitudes, and men have had enough. They develop MEGA - Making Entertainment Great Again and porn comedy becomes popular. Russians are now taking over Alaska, Puerto Rico and Florida and the rise of consumer sex spectators creates the legalization of prostitution in 2025, just before “New Jersey was still habitable.” I tell you Jones has some funny lines.
By 2032 there is a fiscal crises and as Jones becomes an character from India, we learn as inequality of the sexes heightened, it took a toll on the lives of thousands, perhaps millions in men. More than the total deaths of recent wars.
As Jones ends the show as 16 year old Bonita (Campbell’s mother) singing a self written song, “Fly” and the lights fade to black, I reflect on how Jones insightful and beautifully written show is relevant in today’s #MeToo movement where men and women are having conversations about sex, power and attitudes. I hope we don't have to live in the fatalistic and disastrous future she presents.
The run of Sell/Buy/Date has been extended to April 15. Geffen Playhouse offers the popular Talk Back Tuesdays giving theater lovers a chance for a deeper conversation about the plot, character themes and other questions in a post-show Q&A with the artist. Rush tickets for each day’s performance are made available at a discount to the general public 30 minutes before show time.