By Samuel L. Leiter
In 2014, I reviewed The Real Americans, a solo docudrama written and directed by the versatile journalist/actor Dan Hoyle. In it, he recreated the multiple people he met on a trek to the heartland. His purpose, I wrote, was “to gauge the difference between the ‘real Americans’ (as per Sarah Palin) he would encounter and the life and attitudes he knew in his liberal cocoon.” Noteworthy as his recreations were, I found that, ultimately, they were little more than anecdotes whose interest gradually paled.
The same, I’m afraid, is true of Hoyle’s Border People, a 75-minute play directed by Nicole A. Watson for Working Theater at A.R.T./New York Theatres, in which he introduces 11 people, several in Mexico, others in the U.S. Hoyle claims the work is “dedicated to those who cross borders, geographical and cultural, by necessity or choice.” In practice, the issues among the people he impersonates range from the immediate to the amorphous and lack the organic continuity for a sharper commentary.
Hoyle’s method is strikingly similar to the far more focused work of Anna Deveare Smith, whose recently revived Fires in the Mirror, for instance, looks at the Crown Heights Riots through a single actor’s replication of those who were involved. Unlike Smith, who uses a few costume pieces, props, and furnishings, Hoyle, in dark jeans and t-shirt, does little more than roll his sleeves up or wear his shirt tucked in or out. Given his outstanding deftness at physical and vocal shape shifting, this increases respect for his talent but weakens its visual impact.
Hoyle performs in front of designer Frank Oliva’s curved background, lit by Jimmy Lawlor, resembling an oversized “Jeopardy” screen of paneled boxes, used for occasional surtitles and the video projections of Yana Birÿkova. Sound designer Jorge Oliv0 separates the play’s 12 scenes with pop selections ranging from James Blake’s “I Need a Forest Fire” to James Vincent McMorrow’s “Higher Love.”
Hoyle, who is white and hails from the projects in the South Bronx, visits that locale for interviews while also speaking to people in Nogales and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, and locations north of the border, including Lancaster, PA.
He first speaks to a Latino Border Patrol cop who pulls him over for speeding. The cop, a wannabe standup, shares some job experiences while also trying to get some laughs. A large, black man who lives in the projects but prides himself on his upper-middle-class background is preoccupied with identity issues, things like “the types of masculinity” he should emulate or how white or ghetto he should be. Identity politics, in fact, often take precedence over “borders” in these vignettes, touching on problems of race, religion, nationality, and sexual orientation.
A stateless man, born in Saudi Arabia, encounters anti-Muslim bias revealing how “Trump woke up something.” A Mexican-born man who grew up so close to the border he could, as a child, go back and forth under a fence between Mexico and Texas, struggles to determine if he’s Mexican or American. A schoolgirl with a Ghanaian mother and Dominican father wonders about her ethnicity, while a gay rancher in Arizona, once a Maryland redneck, admits to helping illegals, believing in Paganism, and thinking climate change might change us if it brings us to our knees.
A boy from Afghanistan, graduating from an American prep school, recalls the horrors of the Taliban, but may have to move to Canada. A black guy from the projects blasts the cops for harassing innocent people and doubts just how free blacks are. A gay man suffering from HIV has no country he can call home. And a hajib-wearing, homesick Iraqi woman, living in Pennsylvania Dutch country, muses that the Amish are even more constrained than Muslims.
Hoyle’s subjects all speak in variations of colloquial patois, one using only Spanish. Levity sometimes intrudes on speeches about family disruption, military service, drugs, jail, and deportation. As artfully recreated, the stories have momentary interest but are little more than passing sketches, lacking in dramatic impact. Apart from a stray, penetrating comment or two, they fail to add much to what the title promises.
Border People arrives amidst a hot-button controversy surrounding the publication of a novel about the subject of borders, Jeanine Cummins’s American Dirt. What right, some enemies of the book are screaming, does this white writer have to appropriate the Mexican-American immigrant experience? So loudly are they screaming, that concerns for Cummins’s safety have led to her book tour being cancelled.
Border People, which could be criticized on similar grounds, is unlikely to gain the same level of attention. If it were, the outcome might be more dramatic and enlightening than the play that started it.
Border People. Through February 22 (and scheduled for a NYC borough tour March 3-14) at A.R.T./New York Theatres (502 West 53rd Street, between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues). www.theworkingtheater.org
Photos: Carol Rosegg