Jails, Hospitals & Hip-Hop

Danny Hoch

at the Museum of Contemporary Art, through May 2

By Carol Burbank

With a shrug, a shuffle, and a twitch of his hips, Danny Hoch takes his place in the hip-hop diaspora, a culture that originated in American cities but has become a lucrative international business selling toughness and ghetto culture as earnestly as Disney sells family values. Hoch–who teaches performance in jails, universities, and high schools–aims his art at the young people who buy the hip-hop style. But if last Saturday’s audience was any indication, his leftist sincerity and boyish energy attract adults as well. Still, I’m not sure that everyone will be as amused as the kids by his stand-up rhythms and somewhat formulaic characters.

Jails, Hospitals & Hip-Hop is the second of Hoch’s collages of monologues, rap, and meditation developed in collaboration with Jo Bonney, who made a name directing such solo performers as Eric Bogosian (her husband) and Karen Williams. Bonney’s love for blunt, emotional narratives shapes the stand-up energy of this show into tiny plays within plays, pristine confessions that take the audience somewhere that feels dangerous enough to be true but safe enough for TV. In fact Hoch’s first show, Some People, was made into an HBO special in 1996, earning him a few choice fellowships and the brief, comically abortive opportunity to work with Jerry Seinfeld.

As he did in his first show, Hoch introduces us to an array of people influenced by hip-hop myths, music, and street life. All the stories in some way address contemporary problems–police brutality, teen disaffection, inadequate AIDS treatment in prisons, drug abuse, racist stereotypes. We see a bit more of Hoch himself when he proudly tells the story of how he refused to portray a Latino stereotype on Seinfeld and thus lost his chance to play “Ramon the pool guy.” Mainly, though, he takes us on a tour of characters influenced by hip-hop, including a corrections officer and a kid from Montana who wants to be a gangsta.

Hoch’s writing is sharp and concise. He reframes his themes through his characters as if worried we might miss them, shaping his monologues into moments structured like chance meetings with the audience. But despite their ad hoc appearance these are all tightly controlled and nuanced agitprop essays pushing a stylized but ordinary message, a technique perfect for a younger audience tuned to the clarity and repetition of TV. I kept wanting him to go further, to let the characters stretch beyond his politics, hoping for some of the sophistication and wildness that Lily Tomlin, John Leguizamo, Whoopi Goldberg, and Heather Woodbury have brought to solo performance. Despite Hoch’s different accents, he seems stuck in a stand-up comedian’s rhythms, speed-talking to his punch lines and slowing down only to suss out the audience, pat us on the heads, and launch into another pointed joke or story.

He may be trying something very different, however, from what Tomlin and others have done. Where they used theater genres, Hoch uses the structure and style of TV. In the program he writes, “I dedicate this show to the young people of New York City. We have always resisted the regular, done our own thing, and looked fly doing it….I make my work for everyone to come see, but most importantly this is for my generation: Hip-Hop.” What I read as smugness might seem righteous self-possession to a generation that have learned to strut their irreverence through hip-hop rhythms. Hoch is speaking a TV language onstage to an MTV generation, selling a message that seems only common sense to any liberal but rarely hits the street with as much rhythm and flash as he gives it.

David Kodeski’s brilliant but low-key portrait of an ordinary working-class woman, Another Lousy Day, is unlikely to hold any attraction for the audience member who screamed with laughter and slapped her knee whenever Hoch rocked back and forth in a stationary swagger, pursed his lips, and snorted to punctuate his disdain for white-acting, straitlaced ignorance. Hoch speaks for and to a young audience, though his brashness and chutzpah echo the very man he criticizes, Jerry Seinfeld. Although he has several personas, accents, and attitudes, Hoch joshes the audience into a casual comedy-club relationship–the stuff that now makes for successful sitcom stars. Although his machismo is sometimes sweet and always leftist, it still reeks of a testosterone high, and his adolescent rebellion makes the stories–and hip-hop’s bravado–seem a little shallow, at least in the context of other solo performers.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens to Hoch when hip-hop fades into blandness, into the maw of capitalist appropriation. For now he’s riding a knife’s edge, exploiting hip-hop marketing even as he attacks it. He criticizes the designer hip-hop craze (one establishment character raps, “I can take your culture, soup it up, and sell it back to you”) but comes very close to doing the same thing himself, with his stylized stereotypes and issue-primed characters.

Nonetheless, it’s good to see a performer who has conviction both on and off the stage. Through his teaching and his performance, Hoch has shown he’s committed to serving the audience he dreams of creating–he arranged for a block of discount MCA tickets for students. He might be best compared to Roseanne, who also used stand-up storytelling to elbow her way into the media empire, smuggling into the system many of the same values Hoch supports.

And at least Hoch is throwing himself with infectious enthusiasm into a troubled and contradictory culture. He argues in his program note that “hip-hop backspins in irony” as it tries to become “the future of language and culture in the multicultural society.” His complicated, didactic, sometimes self-righteous performance offers both more and less than promised, bravely veering between the ironic and the naive in an attempt to create a performance style that transcends all the rules.

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