One woman playing 19 characters over the course of the next 100 years. While these numbers alone are intriguing, they barely scratch the surface of what makes Sell/Buy/Date, written and performed by Tony winner Sarah Jones, so special. Remounted at the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s Renberg Theatre after a successful LA premiere at the Geffen Playhouse earlier this year, the show takes a hard and moving look at a variety of experiences of people affected by the sex industry, many of which are inspired by true stories Jones came across while researching the piece.
Directed by Carolyn Cantor, the primary story involves Jones playing a college professor, Dr. Serene Campbell, approximately 100 years from now—a world where humans use implanted Virtual Assistants to take calls and send messages with no need for an external device. She is teaching her students about the history of the sex industry using BERT (bio-empathetic resonant technology) which allows people to not only watch and hear pre-recorded strangers describing their experiences, but to feel the feelings the stranger felt and access their memories, essentially fully living in the shoes of another human being from the past. Naturally, this can be a very intense and draining endeavor, which is perhaps a part of why humans now have the ability to protect themselves by modulating their emotions, which is done by flipping an internal switch of sorts. In between BERT anecdotes, we learn Serene’s own personal backstory and identity crisis related to the sex industry, which involves her complicated relationship with her mother.
The BERT anecdotes represent characters across the spectrum of all ages and genders, as well as spanning many years of time between 2019 and Dr. Campbell’s future lecture. There’s an elderly grandmother whose experience with paying for sex consists only of an accidental $19 charge for internet porn, a female prostitute, and a frat boy. There’s a liberal college freshman named Bella, who says “like” a lot, hosts empowering pole-dancing events where vegan-friendly Jell-O shots are served, and bemoans how feminism has reached a point where women are criticized for even wanting to be perceived as sexy. “But like, what if I want to be an object, but like, a powerful object?” she muses. Jones also plays a pimp turned life coach and motivational speaker, a retired vice cop, and a hostess at a high-end sex resort that exists after the legalization of prostitution some number of years in the future.
Jones’s writing is smart, insightful, witty, and moving, and the stories explored in Sell/Buy/Date could not feel more timely or relevant. The running joke throughout is how much society has advanced in the past 100 years—gender and age now exist on a spectrum, dieting is no longer a thing people do (Serene shows the class a Barbie doll and comments she initially assumed it must have been a visual aid to teach anorexia prevention), and the world has open borders, enabling everyone to live wherever they would like. There are also plenty of darker hints about what occurred to change the world we currently live in to this brave new world, which overall seems quite lovely—New Jersey is apparently no longer inhabitable, climate change has caused typical November weather in New York to be warm, and at some point the United States went to war with Canada.
The different BERT anecdotes provide a rough idea of the evolution of society’s views on the sex industry, as well as changes in corresponding legislation in the span of time explored, but what makes these stories so powerful is that they all ultimately come back to biases and stigmas that have existed since the dawn of time. Many women working in the sex industry end up there as a result of trafficking, and Jones manages to condemn these crimes while portraying the women who have one way or another become involved with great empathy and a lack of judgment. There is also plenty of astute commentary on societal attitudes towards sex in general. Serene describes to her students how women in the past were often encouraged to be sexy without being sluts, and that male sluts were simply called “men.” But while it was quite clearly a very rough road spanning many decades to get to this utopic place, Jones’s outlook on the future is ultimately optimistic, which is refreshing and necessary, particularly when so much of this subject matter is difficult to listen to.
By far the most extraordinary thing about Sell/Buy/Date is Jones’s performance. The ease with which she switches between characters is remarkable, and the energy required is that of running a 90-minute marathon. Each character has a distinct voice and accent, but the characterization goes far beyond just that. Jones also contorts and adjusts her entire body to fully inhabit each of these people, to the point where she can make herself nearly unrecognizable. She is just as convincing playing men twice her age as she is playing Serene, arguably the character most like herself—except for a British accent. Each persona is fully realized, and yet she can effortlessly switch between them in seconds. It’s a wonder to behold, and makes Sell/Buy/Date a must-see.
Sell/Buy/Date runs at the LA LGBT Center’s Renberg Theatre through November 3rd. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8pm (no performance Thursday October 25th). The running time is 90 minutes, no intermission. Tickets start at $20 and can be purchased here.