February 20, 2020
There are many good reasons to be made uncomfortable by a white man performing characters of color, and yet when it came to Dan Hoyle, it didn’t take long for me to let down my critical guard. The actor-playwright performs with such selflessness, his one-man show Border People feels like a string of spontaneous possessions.
A maker of “journalistic theatre,” Hoyle travels – a lot. Before deciding where
to go, he sets an intention and researches it, going to where his intentions have the
greatest contextual salience. Such integrity, as well as what can be assumed to be a
fair amount of charm and listening prowess, have granted Hoyle the ability to visit
spaces of passage and asylum. Even as an interloper, he has managed to find people
with whom he is able to delve fully into their lives’ complexities, as well as to earn
their consent to channel these experiences into characters.
Hoyle avoids verbal brownface by neither impersonating his subjects nor speaking a transcript of their conversations, but also not generalizing his subjects’ experiences into oblivion. What is ultimately written is a synthesis of a complete exchange, performed as one side of a conversation in which what is unheard is immaterial and yet key to unlocking a wealth of information from those conditioned to keep quiet – white privilege at its finest.
Bookending the piece is Officer Lopez, who, finding Hoyle in process, asks him what he’s doing on a known drug trafficking route. Other scenes take us to Canada, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Buffalo, Mexico, and the South Bronx’s Andrew Jackson Housing Project. In not only fixating on the Mexican-American border, we immediately understand Hoyle’s sense of border as transcending the physical, held instead by the marginalized, wherever they may go.
Common to many of these subjects is an often bleak sense of limbo. A young girl of Ghanian and Dominican descent is never Black or Spanish enough. A juice vendor must work diligently to seem worthy of approach to customers and yet not so fancy that his neighbors rob him. Islamic characters, whose nationalities are determined by whichever regime is in power overseas, are pressured just as well to leave the US for embodying that which they fled.
Hoyle’s thesis, therefore, broadens: we are human insofar as we defy our molds. The juice vendor elucidates the intricacies of code switching. A Mexican actor with HIV explains how his partner’s death led to the drug use that got him deported. A southwestern farmer tells of a migrant he once sheltered. Officer Lopez just so happens to be an aspiring standup comedian, and tries out some of his material on Hoyle who, until he bows, is on our side of the proscenium’s border.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Jonathan Matthews