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She uses theatre as a tool

An unusual show by a woman unusually talented. ELIZABETH ROY narrates her experience.

``WOMEN CAN'T Wait'' which toured India recently was very special for two reasons. For its exceptional quality of performance from an unusually talented young woman, Sarah Jones. And for the message that reached the audience, that violation of women's human rights is a serious problem that confronts countries across the globe from the U.S. to Japan, from India to Israel, to Jordan, to Africa. It impedes women's fundamental rights to life, health, food and shelter, security, bodily integrity and political participation. ``Violence against women is responsible for much more than serious physical injury. It often leads to psychological trauma, depression, substance abuse, suicide ..." Sarah Jones who wrote the piece did not preach from her podium. She did not resort to healing sessions, she did not offer solutions or fall into the trap of overstating the situation. She merely pointed her long fingers towards the truth and the need for perception. The only tools she had for the job were her voice and her body, which could speak any language on earth. With these she created for her audience the anteroom of a conference hall in the United Nations building. One couldn't but help see the gathering of women delegates from around the world, and beyond that, the bustle and the activity in the busy building. Theatrically it was a pleasing experience.

The story behind ``Women Can't Wait'' takes one to Equality Now, the New York based International Women's Rights Organisation (working for the civil, political, economic and social rights of women and girls around the world) and their report which goes in depth into the discriminatory laws against women in 45 countries. Sarah Jones came into the picture earlier this year when the staff of Equality Now took their executive director (as a birthday gift) to a club where Sarah Jones was performing her earlier one-woman piece, ``Surface Transit'' which dealt with tolerance and intolerance using a collection of eight New York characters. They liked what they saw and Equality Now which was looking for ways to get the United Nations to sit up and take notice of the report and what lay behind it, commissioned Sarah Jones to work on a piece along the same lines.

Sarah Jones, most at home in Chennai, recounted the happenings in New York early this May. ``It was really our mission to retain a sense of balance and to be sure that we point our finger at everybody because everybody is implicated in this problem of discrimination against women. From a representative sampling of laws from all over the world we boiled it down to the eight that we selected.'' Jones had all of one month to write the script, to get the show ready and on the road. ``They helped me find people, I found my own people. I interviewed women, some I spoke with over the phone, to get their accents, to get their stories. I read case studies, read all sorts of material from NGOs working for women's rights all over the world, I watched videos of different women's movements... It was a ton of research and though short, a very involved process. It was an instance of necessity being the mother of not only invention, but velocity as well."

Jones who has had no formal training in acting does not believe in the notion of art for art's sake. She says she is trying to use theatre as a tool. ``When I am commissioned, it becomes my job. I came into this field rather accidentally. My route was so unorthodox. I was writing in my journals and the next thing I know I was creating this piece (Surface Transit) that held itself together and I really believed in." Jones herself enjoys a rich tradition of multi-ethnicity, a child of African and European-Caribbean American parents, both doctors. She gained from further exposure during her years at the U.N. international school. When asked how she moved into this activist mode of thinking and acting, she replied, ``My parents had something to do with that from when I was very little. They just had a sense of social justice and I began to see that if you look around you, no matter where you live, across the globe we have the same kinds of inequities plaguing all of our societies. It was not very difficult for me to have a sense of the kinds of injustices that really need to be addressed."

Jones calls herself a womanist and is deep down, partial to women's issues. ``I don't know how I couldn't be. Every human being that walks this earth, should be partial to women's issues in that they wouldn't be alive were it not for a woman." She sees theatre as a valuable, equalising kind of medium. She hopes to use it to fill the gaping hole between the reality that most people on the globe live, and what is depicted in mainstream entertainment and media.

``There are so many stories of so many rich and beautiful lives that are being lived and layers of human experience that aren't valued by mainstream media. I am interested in those.''

Jones has just finished writing her next piece, ``Waking the American Dream.'' It will hopefully help create a better understanding of what the immigrant story really is, and has been commissioned by the National Immigration Forum, an NGO advocacy group working for immigrant rights. Jones would love to return to India with her new work. Creative Resources for Empowerment in Action and Nalamdana which did a superb job of organising Jones's Indian tour might just consider another one-woman show.

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