The RW Interview
Danny Hoch's People
Revolutionary Worker #909, June 1, 1997
Meet Floe, a young rapper whose over-the-top boasting freestyle gives way, without warning, to a moving reverie about a lost girlfriend. His homies are flipping on him but he persists, looking for some way past his macho vocabulary to describe what it was like to be close to this woman who opened his mind and his heart.
And there's Blanca, a young Puerto Rican woman with giant chunky gold earrings and attitude. She's the one you would pick first to be on your team. But she's stressed. Yesterday her boyfriend suddenly showed up--"after one year nine months and sixteen days together"-- not with a proposal of marriage or a Hallmark card, but a condom.
Doris, a Jewish woman in her mid-60s, is on the phone with her son, for their weekly chat. He has taken a job she describes as "going to all the bad neighborhoods... It's like the Peace Corps only in New York." Liberal bromides from the New York Times tumble out in a hilarious torrent of class prejudices, as she alternates between pride and fear for her son--who has crossed the line to stand with the basic people.
CÚsar enters with a haunting song in Spanish. Hesitantly he takes a seat. We lean in to hear. He is in a place foreign to him, a therapist's office. We learn that he is a proud and gentle man who cherishes his wife and only son and their life together with a tenderness that is heartbreaking. Four months earlier this was all ripped apart when his son was shot down by police on the way to the movies.
It would be fascinating to inhabit the world of any one of these characters, but what is amazing is that all these folks, plus several more, are presented in a non-stop marathon by one actor. Danny Hoch's one-man show "Some People" breaks over you in ways you do not expect.
This is not stand-up but it is very funny--sometimes. And at other times you get so close to these people, in a few minutes, that they make you weep--tears of rage at the insults and suffering society heaps on them, and tears of hope and confidence in the great heart which shines through in these characters.
Danny Hoch tells their stories for real, standing in the shoes of the oppressed. But it is a complex tale, because he never turns away from looking at how the capitalist system gets inside people's heads--creating false consciousness and an agonizing ignorance. Like with Victor, a Puerto Rican youth in a rehabilitation center who's trying to convince a girl he can still dance even though he's on crutches for life because cops shot him and his friends on a suspected car theft, and his family is scared to talk about it cause the cops were the mayor's bodyguards. But Victor still thinks this is a great country, not like Iraq "where people aren't free."
In "Out of Character," edited by Mark Russell, Danny Hoch describes how he came up: "I grew up during the birth of hip-hop culture in a towering brick-and-asphalt Queens neighborhood where there was no racial majority. My godmother was Cuban, my neighbors African-American, West Indians, Puerto Rican, Israeli, Senegalese, and then some. I was a rapper, break-dancer, graffiti artist and drug dealer by the time of my bar mitzvah. Given this childhood, my experience and language is chock-full of multiculture.... When I used to see Dan Rather on the news, I thought for a while that he was broadcasting from another country."
Danny's journey to the stage took him to the "Fame" High School of Performing Arts in New York City, the North Carolina School of the Arts, the British American Drama Academy in London and finally back to New York City. As he told the RW: "I was slowly putting it together that I was being trained in high school and I was being trained in college to leave where I came from and never go back. To be part of work--whether in TV, film or theater-- that had nothing to do with the people I came from. In other words, I was being trained to leave my people."
Rather than pay the rent doing soaps or commercials, Danny waited tables six days a week at the BBQ restaurant in the East Village. Finally he found a job doing theater in high schools and jails: "They didn't realize I was 19 and I didn't realize the job was a faculty position at New York University." For four years, five days a week, he did conflict-resolution-through-drama--all the while developing his solo show. By 1994 he was doing an extended run of "Some People" at the Joseph Papp Public Theater in NYC. It won an Obie award. He has since toured the U.S., Austria, Cuba and Scotland with his show, and in 1995 did it as an HBO Special.
Danny recently completed a run of his new one-man show, "A Progress In Work: Evolution of A Homeboy/Locked Down" at P.S. 122 in Manhattan. The RW caught up with him a few days later.
During the past couple years, Danny has continued performing, as well as writing a a play, two films and a TV pilot. A piece he wrote and acted in for HBO's "Subway Stories" will air this summer. His HBO Special, "Some People", is unavailable for sale or rental in commercial video outlets because HBO still holds the rights. Danny recommends that RW readers write to the HBO producers asking for a copy of the tape and requesting they air it again.
Address: Home Box Office
A profile on Danny, along with monologues of some of his characters, is available in the anthology, "Out of Character: Rants, Raves, and Monologues from Today's Top Performance Artists", edited by Mark Russell.
RW: Tell us something about how you create your characters. What are your sources?
Danny Hoch: The sources are really my life.... I wrote this poem and part of it goes: "If you grow up in Sweden and you speak Swedish and you act Swedish and you talk Swedish and you dress Swedish, can I really blame you? But if you grow up in Lefrak City [a huge multi-story housing development in Queens] in the '70s and '80s and you speak Spanish and you speak patois, and your next door neighbors are African-American and your best friend downstairs is Puerto Rican and Israeli, and your godmother is Cuban and your other friend is from Madagascar and you hang out with Puerto Ricans and Pakistanis and Filipinos and Jews, can you really blame me?"
If that is your source when you're growing up for what is going to be your cultural base, then that is going to be your linguistic base. All my monologues, I wouldn't say I sit down and write them, I write them orally, either by myself in a room or in front of an audience. And then eventually I put it on paper, but that's so painstaking to write it on paper because it's intellectual, it's not visceral. I just sort of let the inner monologues flow out of my head and out of my mouth and then the characters evolve into something.
RW: Your art presents a rich picture of the oppression that gets thrown at people by the system and how people come back at it. But it's never stereotypical. You must really work hard at that.
DH: I think my subconscious goal is to undermine the stereotypes or to show the complexity beyond it. Sometimes when political artists present something that is purely political, people turn off right away. "I don't want to be preached to.".... But if you start with something that lures them in--I mean think about how many people are sitting around watching all these stereotypes on Fox and ABC and NBC. If you lure them in with that but then turn it on its backside, then you can still be political.
Sometimes the issue of minstrelsy comes up for people with what I do. Because the history of people with white skin playing people with non-white skin in the United States is derogatory and the goal of it has been to perpetuate racism on all fronts. But people come up--I'm not gonna say this, I'm gonna repeat what people tell me--they say, "It's obvious, Danny, that you love your characters. If you didn't love them, then we wouldn't love them. There's this tremendous compassion."
RW: You've called yourself an urban griot. What do you mean by that?
DH: Well, lately I've been calling myself an actor. But a griot is the word that the French used when they colonized Africa to describe the solo performers that they saw there in the 1500s -- performers that were storytellers, but at the same time they were comedians, they were teachers, they were preachers, they were shaman, they were priests. They were all those things in one.
I don't consider myself a storyteller per se in terms of the form. But in a sense the monologues that I do and the people that I portray in my form of solo theater, in essence I am telling stories. And I am doing what a griot does anywhere around the world, whether it's Africa or Asia or the Americas before colonialism, or Europe, in that I become possessed in a sense by the different characters. Or I put on masks or costumes. I use songs and maybe some movement which some people consider dance, to educate, to entertain, to provoke--and sometimes to preach. [laughs]
I started to do research on this when I was on the faculty at NYU and was able to access their library. I was 19.... I found out that in indigenous cultures all over the world, this was what theater was.
RW:That was when you were doing theater workshops at Rikers....
DH: The theater that I was doing then in jails and high schools was, I feel to this day, the most amazing theater I have ever both partaken in and seen. We weren't there to entertain. The idea was that we would do these high-impact, high-concept, incredibly emotional improvisational scenes about different issues: AIDS, racial prejudice, abuse, violence, drugs...and the purpose of them was to provoke the inmates or the students to have reactions and opinions so that they could then tell us how to change the outcome for the characters that we created.
We would get the young people up to role-play with us at the end of every workshop, with different characters for different reasons. And 50 percent of the time people were in tears. Inmates.
You know that you're doing something powerful when there's a whole room of disenfranchised men who have been shit on by the system who don't want to hear a word, and when you walk into the room they're thinking "what the fuck is this," and then in five seconds of theater they're all telling each other to shut up, and they're pulling up their chairs, to see what we're doing.
And at the end, they're like, "Why are you leaving? Don't leave us. When are you coming back? I want to be an actor. I want to do this. These are my dreams." I'm sure most people, or at least some people who read the RW have been in prison. You know the state of mind when you're in prison is not conducive to sharing your dreams, or thinking that you have possibilities.
RW: You once said that the prisoners encouraged you to put your characters on TV.
DH: Exactly. I had planned to do that theater [in jails and schools] for the rest of my life. At the same time, I was putting up this solo stuff, and I wasn't expecting to explode in the press. But then I did and all these other opportunities came up. A lot of the opportunities were in Hollywood. I think, since 1993 when that whole explosion happened, I have turned down probably five, six million dollars worth of acting work, in sit-coms, movies and theater.
People think I'm crazy and they say, "Why are you being a fucking martyr? Who do you think you are? One of your inmates that you're so proud of at Rikers--if they had an opportunity to do a Sprite commercial and make a million dollars they would do it in a second. So who are you?"
But my whole thing is like I did not have the experience that I had--doing work with young people, my young people, from my city, from my borough--I did not do everything I did, politically and socially and emotionally, as a solo performer, to go be in 10 Sprite commercials. I didn't do it to go be the guy that blows up token booths in "Money Train." Even though it paid $250,000--I didn't do it. I'd rather have a kid come up to me on the street and say, "Yo--you were that kid, you was at Rikers, right? I was in there. Yeah, I saw your workshop, yo, that shit was good. It was so funny, you made me think."
Now, I didn't want to totally reject Hollywood because after saying no for so many years, Hollywood became sort of mystified. Who is this kid who's saying no to all these lucrative offers? So finally they said, "What do you want to do?"... So I feel I have a responsibility to take this privilege and use what power I'm given in this industry to possibly use politics, to tell stories that are not being told.
RW: There's this tightrope that artist walk to keep their
principles and get their art out in the mass media to the people that they made it for. In
your latest show you talk about being invited to be in a
DH: To put the story in a nutshell, I had just gotten back from Cuba...and they asked me to be in this Seinfeld episode and I had to decide in an hour whether I was going to get on a plane the next morning. I read the script and my instinct said, I got a bad feeling about this.
When I got there Jerry Seinfeld wanted me to do this stereotypical funny Spanish-speaking pool caretaker who collects towels and is just like funny and psychotic, and that was the extent of the character. I should have listened to my instincts. My instinct knew that that was going to happen but I didn't listen to it because I thought maybe I could just go out and fucking do Seinfeld, and more young people will come to my shows because I will be the guy that was on Seinfeld. Cuz they weren't airing my HBO Special, and not that many people have cable anyhow, or HBO.
So I had this argument with Jerry Seinfeld and the director. You know I wasn't condescending at all, I was very apologetic but I said, "Look, I can't do this," when they asked me to do it in a Spanish accent. They confronted me with something that I really wasn't expecting. It was very manipulative and it was very sort of pulling their power. And it was this question, "Aren't you an actor? Isn't that what you do? Don't you do accents, don't you play different characters?" And for a second they had me asking myself that question.
But then I was like, no, wait a second, I know where I come from, I know where I've been. And that's when I started looking down at my shoes. I was like, my shoes have been to Rikers, my shoes have been to Bronx Detention, my shoes have been to India and Cambodia, and my shoes have been all over Brooklyn.... If I participate in this I will be participating in something which is not only against my values, but against my people.
Of course, I didn't say that to him at the time. But I told him the reason why.... And they flew me back, first-class, and didn't pay me....
Some people call it integrity and some people think I'm fucking whatever, that I'm trying to make some "statement." But if I say yes--what am I doing? On Seinfeld they said, "It's a half-hour comedy show, what the fuck is the big deal?" And I thought, what is the big deal?! This country is fucked up. People's minds are fucked up. We are scared of each other because of what we see every day on our TV, of what we see every day in movies. And you just think you can have your little career, writing and directing sit-coms and movies in Hollywood and you think it's all great. And you think the world revolves around you, and you think you're pretty progressive, don't you? But what you do is having a tremendous effect--on young people particularly, you know? And it's wrong.
RW: Is there an audience that you seek?
DH: After I started working with young people, I specifically wanted young people to come to my shows. Young people from all economic classes and racial, ethnic backgrounds. I'm very upset where there are no young people at my shows.... Because I see what happens to young people when they come to my shows, all kinds of young people. They are very inspired, and very moved, and they're provoked to take action.
RW: You have used some pretty creative moves to let the youth know about your shows--like in Minneapolis.
DH: Oh yeah, yeah. I was in Minneapolis at a place called the Mixed Blood Theater [his eyes go wide]. Their mission statement was like half of Martin Luther King's dream speech. It was all about multi-culturalism and multi-ethnicity. And I noticed--one couldn't help but notice--that the theater was right next door to three huge project buildings that were each at least 25 stories.... And I'd say 3/4 of the people in these projects are Black and half the Black people in these projects were Ethiopian immigrants. I thought, "This is so fucking great."
So the second night I go to the box office and they had sold 13 tickets. I said, "Don't you ever have young people from next door, like intern for you?" And she said, "Oh no, no! They cause trouble." And I said, "Well, have they ever gone to see something here?" And she said, "Oh no, no, no." And I said, "Well, did you ever invite them? There's 7 or 10 thousand people living in these buildings next door and they've never been here? How long have you been here?" "Thirteen years." Right?! So I say, "I get comps, right?"
I go across the street to the basketball court in the projects and there's like 50 kids playing basketball. All of them are Black. They all got their pants sagging and their hats turned back. And I go, "Hey, I don't mean to break up your game and shit but there's this guy performing across the street, and, yo, oh my god, this guy is so funny, he plays these characters, he plays this woman, yo, this shit is so funny. He was on HBO too." They're like, "HBO, yo, word? Oh shit." So I said, "You should go see him." They said, "Well how much are tickets?" I said, "Tickets are $12, but I'll get you comps."
So they came. And they all sat in the back. And who was sitting in the front but my 13 trusty white progressive Minneapolis types in their 20s or 30s. You can't knock em--I mean they come to my shows and they support, and they're good people.
And I'm doing my show, and you know my show is very difficult linguistically, right. Well, I didn't realize that half these kids were first generation immigrants--they had just come from Ethiopia --- so they hadn't even mastered "standard" English, let alone all this language that I was talking on stage, with the Puerto Rican Brooklyn accent, and the Bronx Dominican accent, and you know, the Queens Jewish accent--it was like forget it--and Trinidadian DJ, the Jamaican guy.
So not only are they having a different cultural response, cuz they're from Ethiopia--so they're getting up and responding to my characters, talking to my characters--which I'm totally thrilled about because to me this is what theater is, right. But they're translating for each other! Like the ones that understand English are translating for the other ones that don't. Because it's so important that they understand what I'm saying. To me, because language is my fucking love, I am in heaven, this is the greatest show I ever did in my life.
What are my trusty white progressive people doing in front? They're turning around and going "Shhhh, Shhh." They're telling them to shut up! So then the kids are getting upset, "Don't tell me to shut up, man," right? And the white people are like, "You don't know how to act in a theater." So eventually this fight breaks out between one of the white guys and one of the Ethiopian kids and they take it out in the lobby. I kept going with the show.
So by the end of the show all the kids have left. I get off stage and there are all my 13 trusties waiting for me, right, with their arms folded... And I swear to you, I'm quoting to you what that one guy said to me. He said, "They were infringing on my theatrical experience." And I said, "What makes it your theatrical experience and not theirs?" And this guy was all leftist and shit with his little fucking plaid retro shirt with a little button on it, and his dyed hair and nose ring and shit.... I said, "You are at the Mixed Blood Theater. Do you live in these buildings here?" "No." "These people live in these buildings and they have never been invited in, and they already are feeling alienated to begin with. You have your way of behaving in a theater --"
So, they started arguing with me, but some of them were supporting me, and some of them were arguing with each other. And then I left them. But then I thought, you know what, this is what theater is for. Theater is to provoke discussion, to have people argue with each other. Why should you go to a theater and leave feeling good about yourself and that's it? I'm sure the kids had a lot to talk about too. I just wish they woulda came back. I feel really bad, that that's how they were like pushed out...
So now wherever I go, if I have at least a day to walk around, I find some kids and get them on the list and they come in.
RW:I heard that you did a one-week residency in Lincoln, Nebraska--what was that like?
DH: It was a big thing, like everybody was so nervous "Oh my god, here's this performance artist from New York coming to this junior high." ...I did these pieces about police brutality and racism. I did "Message to the Bluntman," the poem, I did Bronx, the guy that's in Rikers who was busted for selling T-shirts. And I did Victor, on the crutches. The kids--they'd never seen anything like it in Lincoln, Nebraska.
When I started the workshop, I was like, "Well, I don't know, maybe you don't have police brutality here." And they're like, "Yes we do, this Mexican guy was killed on the side of the road by this cop in a chokehold, and this Black kid was shot in the back cause the cops thought he had a beebee gun but he didn't have anything, de de de de...."
And the principal [who is a Black woman] is looking at me like--[furrows brow]. And she keeps asking me "So why do you use so much cursing?" And I want to say to her, "Why do you keep trying to change the subject?" So I asked the kids, "Why do you think I'm cursing? Do you think I'm cursing just to be rebellious?" And they said, "No, it's because you're trying to make a point, and that's really how some of these people talk. But you just say it like you say it. It really makes sense."
And I said, "So how do you feel about police brutality? How do you feel about that Mexican guy who was killed in Lincoln, Nebraska?" And they were like, "That's messed up! That shouldn't happen." And I said, "Well, what are you going to do about it?" "I don't know, it's just fucked up." And I said, "But if you don't do anything, it's pointless this whole discussion, right?"
I get back to my hotel, and I get a call from my booking manager telling me the arts organization is not paying me for the week for doing my two shows and three days of workshops in Lincoln, Nebraska. The principal had called the school board of Nebraska and they cut $240,000 in funding for the Wagon Train Project to do arts and education for the next five years. And they were dis-invited back from every school in Nebraska because the principal said I had, quote un-quote, "an improper and profane discussion about police brutality and racism that was inappropriate for kids that age."
RW: What you do is part of what I would call a culture of resistance. And I'm wondering how you see it and if you see this kind of art growing?
DH: I think it's been growing.... I think that my generation is unique in that I know a vast amount of people who are my age who, all through our childhood, and through our 20s, did not and do not feel that we will make it to the next year--either because of reasons of Armageddon, or we're gonna get murdered, or the government is gonna come kill us, or drugs or whatever. Like when I was 16 I never believed I would live to be 17. When I was 18 I never thought I would see 20. Now I'm 27 and I don't know whether I'll reach 28. So, I think a lot of people in our generation, even if we succeed and do well, we are not going to stop resisting.
RW: Why not?
DH: Because these past 20 years have been so brutal, I think that for the next 20 we will not be able to just sit back and let things happen.
RW: Do you think your art helps people change the world?
DH: I know it's what I'm supposed to do in my life. And I've seen all generations, colors and genders moved by what I do.... They were moved to do something, their minds were opened. I could touch the possibility for change in these people, particularly in jail. So, yes I do, I feel that it's amazingly powerful, it's threateningly powerful, theater is. And I'm just trying to be part of that power. I'm trying to achieve theater....
The possibilities that I show in characters, the complexities and different levels, show possibilities for others. Show people that they are not one-dimensional. They have choices, they do not have to settle for one decision.
And if I can keep doing that, then I will be very blessed and privileged. Sometimes I don't even know what I'm doing or how I'm doing it, it just sort of comes out. But I know it's important, and people tell me it's important.
My feedback is not "Oh my god, you were so funny." My feedback is, and it keeps coming to me, whether it's on the street or after shows, "Oh my god, you made me think, oh my god, you made me feel. Oh my god, I didn't know that. Oh my god, the guy next to me was weeping. Oh my god, I was weeping. Oh my god, did that really happen?" "Oh my god, I'm not gonna watch Seinfeld." It's all this "oh my god."
There's an urgency to it, and to me theater must have urgency because we're in urgent times.
...Last month I was talkin to a chicken
Danny Hoch, "Some People"
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary