One-Woman Show 'Sell/Buy/Date' Wants To Get Audiences Talking About Sex Work

Playwright/performer Sarah Jones in Sell/Buy/Date. (Photo by Chris Whitaker)

By Monica Bushman with Marialexa Kavanaugh

Sell/Buy/Date tells stories of characters tied directly and indirectly to prostitution and pornography. It's by Tony Award-winning playwright Sarah Jones, and it's playing at the L.A. LGBT Center.

"You know, a 'sell-by date' is the expiration date on something. And the idea is, we're looking at empowerment, women, sex and culture — especially in this MeToo moment — and [asking], How sustainable is where we are right now?" Jones said.

Jones wanted to be cautious about not to make Sell/Buy/Date a lamentation on the miseries of the sex industry. The goal: to highlight a traditionally contentious and taboo subject in a way that would engage viewers in conversation.

"If we're honest, I don't know anybody that hasn't had some interaction with either a pornographic website or a magazine or something!" Jones said. "It's part of our mainstream life in far greater ways than any of us acknowledge."

Sell/Buy/Date is a one-woman show built around a series of recorded interviews, replayed decades later in a classroom of the future.

The show takes on an added sense of urgency in the light of the recent Senate hearings spurred by accusations of sexual assault against conservative Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanagh. While the focus of Jones' show is the sex industry, the multitude of male and female characters she portrays touch on larger themes of power, sexism, and the commodification of women and sex.

One of Jones's characters is university professor Serene, whose signature narrative devices are technologies called Bio Empathy Resonance Modules. They allow her students to experience the thoughts of women from our current day and age.

"I think all performances are about getting inside the experience of someone who may be nothing like you," Jones said. "But the hope is that you find these points of connectivity. And so I'm sure, for me, even writing a piece about this topic — I felt that, I'm the kid of two doctors, I come from this multicultural family where as far as I know, nobody was affected by sex work. What does this have to do with me? And then I realized, these women are no different than I am."

She said there's a continuum around the coversation of what is sexy — and what is empowerment.

"Models who are influencers with millions and millions of followers are one bikini top away from supposedly pornographic material," Jones said. "Where do we draw these lines? What is the most free and empowered a woman can be in her sexuality, and how do men support that?"

Playwright and performer Sarah Jones in Sell/Buy/Date. (Photo by Chris Whitaker)

Editor's note: A version of this story was also on the radio. Listen to it here on KPCC's the Frame.

While the play's #MeToo edge is serendipitous with our current climate, it actually took some time for Jones to research and write it.

"In some ways I've been doing research for a lifetime," Jones said. The seed of the play was planted while she taught poetry classes to young women on Rikers Island.

"I met so many girls, young girls who are high-school aged," Jones said. "In theory, you shouldn't be on Rikers Island, right? There were so many girls who had just ended up in these situations because of coercion or exploitation by somebody else."

She didn't research outside the U.S. as well. Her goal was to take both herself and her viewers on a long journey.

"I went to India and walked in a place called Sonagachi, which is the largest open-air brothel in the world," Jones said. "And girls are literally born into this life."

She took those experiences to create characters.

"I have these characters in my repertoire from years of growing up in diverse communities that sound like music and what America is made of," Jones asid. "No matter what sort of 'yuge' presences in our culture may say."

She said she wants people to leave the show feeling stimulated.

"We have an information card in the playbill that invites people to explore a little more of the themes," Jones said. "And I want people to have those conversations with people they might not normally rub shoulders with in their daily lives."

Sell/Buy/Date plays at the L.A. LGBT Center through Nov. 3.


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