CW: Sexual exploitation, anorexia
More characters exist within Tony-winner Sarah Jones than in most novels.
At the Sept. 30 performance of “Sell/Buy/Date” at Pomona College’s Seaver Theatre, Jones seamlessly slipped between varied mannerisms and accents, her virtuosity in character study and impression on full display.
The one-woman show, written and performed by Jones and directed by Carolyn Cantor, is set in a “post-progressive” futuristic world in which sex work is legal in 49 states and a Barbie doll is interpreted as an “educational tool for anorexia prevention.”
Serene Campbell, a British professor leading a class on the effects of the normalization of sex work in American culture, is the first character introduced.
Campbell uses “Bio-Empathetic Resonant Technology,” which allows users to replicate an individual’s voice and mannerisms derived from recorded modules. Jones channels the recorded modules of those involved in the sex work industry to emphasize their complex and differing perspectives and backgrounds.
Throughout the show, Campbell becomes dozens of characters, including teenage sex workers, a self-declared Russian “raunchrepreneur” who ran a chain of boutique brothels and a sex-addicted New York police officer.
To embody a module, “you need to be able to access your entire [emotional] range,” Campbell said.
Some of Campbell’s embodiments argued that sex workers were victims of sexual violence rather than visions of empowerment. But another character said, “What if I want to be an object, but like, a powerful object?”
The varied perspectives on whether sex work acts as a method of empowerment formed the underpinning tension of “Sell/Buy/Date,” and the show offered no clear conclusion.
“I think the artistic value of the piece was incredible,” Shringi Diva Vikram SC ’20 said. “I don’t know if [Jones] was aiming for a clear message, or if it was an elucidation of all these different situations and different perspectives.”
In a post-show discussion session with Pomona theater assistant professor Carolyn Ratteray, Jones spoke on the purpose of the show: “I wanted to look at how girls are seen as commodities so early … I really wanted to look at where I had objectified myself, and where other women were doing it and where men were receiving that message.”
Jones explained that she conducted field research during the writing process for the show, interviewing numerous individuals with sex work experience to shape her characters.
“I started writing it in 2012. I went to Korea, India, all these places where there are incredibly powerful stories of women surviving commercial sexual exploitation,” Jones said. “Along that continuum, [I wanted to know the person] who is the dominatrix [and also] considers herself empowered and a businesswoman — I wanted to talk to her.”
Jones’ motivation to learn about sex work experiences has still continued after writing “Sell/Buy/Date.”
“I continue to look for what I think of as the unicorn, [the person] who is doing this work without any exploitation or trauma in her background, because I don’t know any human beings who haven’t experienced some trauma.”
The effects of Jones’ efforts were clear in the production. “She said she had done her research and it really showed,” Olivia Deligan PO ’23 said. “The way she approached the topic and all the different perspectives she brought in felt really real and raw.”
Audience members came away impressed by Jones’ acting skills.
“The people that I’ve talked to and myself found that the acting especially was phenomenal,” Vikram said. “I don’t think it’s common for somebody to go through so many characters and do them so convincingly.”
Jones’ ability to jump from character to character with such effortless ease also made audience members believe in each character’s story.
“She was embodying all these different people and they felt like actual people,” Deligan said. “There were certain moments where I had to remember that it was just a performance and not real life.”