Some People

Danny Hoch

at the Organic Theater, through July 8

First, Danny Hoch has an uncanny ear for speech patterns, eye for body language, and ability to explore the sociological implications of our multiethnic society. And second, he has a great gift as a performer.

However, unlike Anna Deavere Smith, who appeared at the Goodman Studio Theatre not long ago, Hoch’s personal viewpoint is everywhere–a great artistic pity. At the end of Some People, barely 20 seconds after the applause has begun, he gestures to his audience for silence and performs a little acoustic rap, using a wooden stage prop as a bongo. He informs us that (a) this show is about “we” and “they,” (b) it “ain’t no performance art” but an evening of theater, and (c) he is “young, single, and free.” Had the rest of the show not been performed with such skill, this little finale might easily have undermined his entire effort.

If Hoch has done his job as an artist, we’ll figure out that the show is about “we” and “they.” And the only people who care whether a piece is performance art or theater are editors and writers; performance, speech, and theater departments at universities; and grant committees. An audience doesn’t care how an artist wants to categorize or market himself. As for his being “young, single, and free,” I thought to myself: “Who else would end with a ‘come and get it’ statement like that but a performance artist?” I suppose when you’re 24 you can make bizarre statements and get away with it, at least with your contemporaries.

Hoch has attempted something much in fashion these days, showcasing his considerable gifts through myriad character portrayals, 11 to be exact. And his raw talent is relentless, enveloping, seductive. Still, a few of these characters are out of focus. Some of them are cursory studies. Hoch kicks off the evening, for example, with a portrait of a disc jockey who calls himself “the Caribbean Tiger.” Some of his talk is hard to hear, and even harder to understand. The story goes nowhere–though it would have made artistic sense had some truth been revealed in this opening section. All we know is that the Caribbean Tiger is a nice guy who talks fast.

“Madman” is another likable character designed more to show off raw charisma than anything else. Madman’s favorite expression is “fresh and hot.” He stands at the foot of the stage, holding out his hand, looking at the first row of the audience: “I love you, touch me, touch me,” he says. “You can’t touch me–I’m too hot!” Then he begins a song, establishing the rhythm with his foot, and the audience is supposed to tap and sing along. To conclude this section he improvises, pointing to his shoe, “Bally shoe–fresh and hot.” Or his gold tooth, “fresh and hot.” And on and on, pointing out various features that are “fresh and hot” as the lights dim. As in the first character study, there’s almost nothing to ponder here. Hoch’s portrayal reminded me of some of the high school kids I teach, but without any of their depth.

Still, this is a show worth watching. The stage at the Organic is strung with a clothesline on which hang hats, accessories, sweaters, and shirts. Hoch changes character by removing and putting on one costume piece after another, until by the show’s end the clothesline is empty.

His most courageous portrayal is of a Jewish mother, Doris, who harbors a barely contained, barely recognized racism. She scraps alternately with her son and her husband and carps about her son’s lack of health insurance and the “sort of Peace Corps in New York” work he does. She almost begs him to come to seder. She tells him she’s worried about him because she reads the New York Times, and she knows what goes on in certain neighborhoods in New York: “They kill their own…” she begins and stops. Hoch brings his portrait to life with a sweater and a phone, an impeccable Long Island accent, and the perfect posture, his character slouched into the phone as if for sustenance. When she asks the son if he’s angry with her, there’s a pause and then she says, “Well, I’m your mother…” And we know she’s saying, “Who else should you be mad at but your mother?” Here the push and pull of a mother’s relationship with her son, the juxtaposition of Doris’s idealism with her deficiencies of character, and the conflicts with her son are conveyed subtly and lovingly.

In one of the funnier portrayals, Hoch is Kazmierczack, a door-to-door fix-it man who speaks lyrical, fractured English aided by mime and facial gestures. He knocks on an imaginary door, then asks, “You something break? Something never very good? You break something? What you break?” Then he answers, “I fix.” Then he asks again, “You always–what you break?” He answers for his potential client, “Sink…flush…bad…fixing…stove…” Hoch also reveals this character, who talks to his client while he’s fixing a stove. Hoch’s attention to small details, to his character’s speech patterns and facial expressions, make this innocent little vignette gripping.

Another well-constructed character is a hip-hopper working out some licks with his bandmates: all they really need to do, he says, is put together enough material for a demo tape. Once they have a demo tape, he reasons, they’ll be given $250,000 apiece, and he’ll take the money and go to college. No one will refuse him–Yale, Harvard–as long as they know he has $100,000 in his pocket. (The audience ate this line up.) This character clicks his tongue when he wants to silence his friends, and puts his hand in front of him as though waving something unpalatable away–something I’ve seen my students in Pilsen do when they’re making a point. He waxes nostalgic about a girlfriend who dumped him. He compares a moment of passion to what happens on an amusement park ride, when your stomach seems to be in your chest. His friends laugh, and he cuts out the philosophic musings on love: “Shut the fuck up–OK, kick the verse!” Hoch explores this character’s personal history, motivations, even his sense of humor.

Hoch has a beautifully expressive face, mobile, open, and vulnerable. His huge blue eyes are so earnest his audience might follow him wherever he decides to go, whether it’s with Blanca, a young Puerto Rican woman who will not on principle use a condom; or Bill, an MBA who has some convoluted theories on race and immigration; or the dancer Al Capon, who is “on” when he dances in a sequined jacket, and “off” as he smokes a cigarette backstage; or Cesar, the father who mourns his only son.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paula Court.