Danny Hoch is one of those New York guys of unspecified ethnicity. Watching him take the stage for his latest piece of one-man “hip hop theater,” Taking Over, at the Playwright’s Center last night, I couldn’t tell if he was black, Jewish, Latino, Polish . . . no idea. He’s very New Yawk in that Bobby Canavale, sounds-like-you-need-a-Kleenex-bro way, but categorizing him beyond that proved impossible.
And that was before he inhabited eight different characters from the streets of occupied Williamsburg, Brooklyn: a Puerto Rican grad student, a French real estate agent, a fifty-year-old black woman, an ex-con named Kiko, a Jewish developer, a Dominican taxi dispatch, a trust-fund baby from Michigan, and a conscientious rapper named Launch Missiles Critical.
Taking Over is a work-in-progress making its way out to Berkeley Rep, but it’s a workshop in virtuosity, because Danny nailed the voice of each character. The multitasking Jewish real-estate agent, Stuart Gottberg, was doing his morning yoga poses as he threatened the art guerrillas tagging his new condos with torture courtesy of his private security firm—well, as soon as he paid off his $300 million loan. Kaitlin from Michigan (“I liiiike your sandaaaals!”) was selling handmade Frida Kahlo purses on the street because her parents were cutting her monthly allowance from $5K to $3K. And Launch Missiles Critical spit a few Brother Ali–worthy bars agitating for revolution before proclaiming: “If you haven’t read Noam Chomsky, you a faggot-ass nigger and you ain’t really hip hop.”
You can’t really accuse the guy of painting in broad strokes because each portrait is so minutely detailed and well constructed. The accents are perfect, the mannerisms precise, the slang authentic, and subtitles are provided for the parts in French and Spanish. But there are spots when one can see the ventriloquist’s lips move. For instance, the Dominican taxi dispatch takes a break from calling the Mexican selling tacos out of his cab a hick to ask somebody to grab him a cup of coffee from the stand down the way. When told that the guy sold the stand for $3 million, the dispatch marvels before wondering where he’s going to buy goat and plantains and beans and rice now that all the white people they’re picking up “only eat sushi.” Maybe this moment of vulnerability wouldn’t seem out of character if it was an inner monologue, an Olivier doing Hamlet voiceover, but it’s part of the outer monologue, so it comes off as slightly preachy.
This gentrification thing is a complex issue, and problematic and worth being examined in a multidimensional way. The crack vials aren’t piling up on the stoop anymore like back in Reagan’s eighties, and as one of Hoch’s characters points out, the only things getting shot on Bedford these days are indie movies, but it’s just not that simple. Hoch’s performance draws that complexity out without harshly judging his audience, which on this night— and I’m guessing many nights—is made up of (mostly) overeducated white people. In fact, Hoch breaks character towards the end of the show and talks about his personal experience dating Middle American ex-pats “finding themselves” in Brooklyn. He points out that Americans from the other forty-nine states now outnumber native New Yorkers and immigrants in the five boroughs, and he blames that stat on the proliferation of Subway sandwich shops and Whole Foods grocery stores in the city. People want to feel at home, he says. As he makes his way around the country, taking his “I’m an alien from NYC” show on the road, he asks many young artists where they’re going to be in five years. They all say New York or California, of course. Hoch points out that for every Diablo Cody who makes it to the coast for good, there are a hundred Kaitlin from Michigans who come home, a few years later, after “finding themselves.” But if the artists and the thinkers leave, even temporarily, Hoch asks, who gets left behind? And what if some of those people left behind become presidents or senators? What if they make policies that change New York, not necessarily for the better?
With a little more work (maybe one less “insurgent” reference, Danny), Taking Over could inspire more of us to stay put.
Danny Hoch’s Taking Over (a work in progress) is a co-production with Walker Art Center, and continues at the Playwrights’ Center through December 8.