Tony-Winning Actress Sarah Jones on Creating Characters from Her Multiracial Background
"Sarah, honey, why do you call yourself black? You’re really more like a caramel color …”
I’m a teenager in the late ’80s, eating Thanksgiving dinner with my multiracial extended family. One of my none-too-woke white relatives poses the question—again—in her Long Island accent. I’m mortified. This is the family I come from?
“Um, whatever,” I mutter under my breath as she moves on to her second helping of turkey and gravy.
I come from a family that includes Irish-Americans, German-Americans (both Christians and Jews—it’s a long story filled with intrigue and interfaith guilt), people from the Caribbean, Southern black folks ... Let’s just say I’m related to pretty much anybody currently being deported or disenfranchised.
When I was a kid, it wasn't yet normal for a little black girl to be seen with a white-skinned mom. People always thought I was adopted. They’d stare, and my dark-skinned father was constantly afraid he’d be attacked for being with my mom. A few times he was.
For me, being different felt truly scary. I wished I could blend in, appear normal, feel accepted. That’s partly why I got so good at being a chameleon. To whomever I was speaking with, whether at home or at the international school I attended later that was even more diverse than my family, I could be a mirror, helping us both feel more connected.
I first started doing characters for mischievous purposes, like getting my friends out of class. I’d call the school nurse, and she’d believe I was a German, French, or Indian parent who needed her child to come home early—then we’d all play hooky for the day.
Later I discovered I could make a career out of trying to belong. After college, I started doing the personas at open mics and gradually developed a following as I created plays and live performances populated by the people I’d invented. They were with me when I performed at the White House (Obama’s); when Meryl Streep sat front row at my most recent one-person show, Sell/Buy/Date; and when I went to the Tony Awards. The characters helped me hold on to who I really was, no matter where I roamed.
The challenge has been learning how to be in character without losing me. From time to time I’ve found myself hiding behind these personalities, especially whenever I feel “less than.” Even as I was recognized for my theatrical achievements, I leaned on my multiple personas, with their memorable accents and stories of far-flung places. Wouldn't people be disappointed when they found out I was really just plain old Sarah from Queens?
I’ve slowly but surely found a balance. Recently, I was backstage at a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton, where I was performing along with Lin-Manuel Miranda, Julia Roberts, Jake Gyllenhaal, Hugh Jackman, and Emily Blunt. No pressure, right?
Supportive friends like Lena Dunham and Angela Bassett encouraged me to work through my nerves, but before I went out onstage, there were some other people I really needed to talk to. I ducked into the ladies’ room, looked in the mirror Issa Rae Insecure–style, and let the characters speak out loud. My old-school hip-hop personality, Rashid, told me to stop comparing myself to everyone else and just “do me.” Lorraine, my elderly Jewish bubbe, told me to enjoy the moment, stop kvetching, and try to have fun.
But it was Ms. Lady, an older black woman, the first character I’d ever performed publicly, who helped me most. “Baby, tonight ain’t about you,” she said. “And it ain’t even about the stars in the room. It’s about something even bigger—making the world better for everybody. So go out there and be your true self.”
And that’s exactly what I, uh, we, did.
For more stories like this, pick up the August issue of InStyle, available on newsstands and for digital download July 7.
Jones’s podcast, Playdate with Sarah Jones, is out now on iTunes.