BWW Review: Dan Hoyle is spellbinding in BORDER PEOPLE, his solo show at The Marsh.
Oakland actor, playwright, and visionary Dan Hoyle stood in the middle of the bare, black box performance space of The Marsh and for 75 spellbinding minutes held the audience in the palm of his hand. The occasion was the world premiere of his solo show Border People, a work he wrote based on conversations with people who straddle, confront or live in the liminal border spaces where they deal with rejection and acceptance, hope and fear. With honesty and vulnerability, Hoyle zooms in on some eleven individual squares of the mosaic we call America and tells the stories of the people that occupy those spaces.
Dressed in a black t-shirt and jeans, this skinny white guy from Oakland presents without prelude a 220-pound, 6'5" black guy from the Bronx named Jarrett. Only it's more than a presentation. Suddenly it's as if this African-American man - who constantly must code-switch as he balances on the border between the white world and the black - is there. Jarrett's talking through Hoyle, and you get the impression that it's safer that way within the body of this light-skinned male. Jarret tells us that he wears sweater-vests for the whites and Michael Jordan or LeBron James shoes, ("the cuff-links of the ghetto") for the blacks. The goal is to make everybody comfortable with him, but nobody ever is.
It's the same for all the border people that Hoyle channels during the evening. One, a woman at a mall, is puzzled as to why people can't get away from her fast enough until a friend tells her that they're scared of her hijab. Hoyle's face says it all. Why would that scare them?
Longtime collaborator Charlie Varon, who directed and co-developed the show, moves us seamlessly from one story to the next, making use of hot beats by James Blake, Chon, and BJ the Chicago Kid to name just a few.
We hear painful stories from a Palestinian man who says that Islamic police want to "write their names inside your brain." He's not Muslim enough there, but he's much too Muslim here. He says that Trump f'd everything up. "If the people in a country don't like each other, then it's just a place to live."
Though Hoyle doesn't speak Spanish one of his characters does. In shadow and light (by designer Cassie Barnes) he leans against the backdrop stage right while his words are translated into English next to him. His voice is painfully resigned, almost detached. There's no hope for him as he straddles the border between Mexico and the U.S. Another, who hides in a safe house on the northern U.S. border says that Canada is the United States 2.0. That one hurts. Another thinks that Mike Pence is part robot.
Perhaps the funniest encounter is with a suspicious border patrol agent who's stopped Hoyle on a desolate road near the southern border. He's intrigued by the fact that Hoyle's an actor. He shares that he does some stand-up. This connection makes him open up. He's Hispanic, and he's a border agent. There aren't nearly as many people crossing. He adds that he doesn't think that a wall is the answer. The question for him is, "How far do you leave the door open? This whole border crisis thing, it's like 'slow your roll, bro.'"
That is, perhaps, the best advice in this show that truly doesn't preach. The space between the known and the unknown can be highly unsettling, but if we have the courage to "slow our roll" long enough to listen to the stories of those whose bodies occupy that in-between space, then transformation can happen.
BORDER PEOPLE runs through April 27, 2019
The Marsh San Francisco, 1062 Valencia, SF, CA 94110
Tickets: themarsh.org or 415.282.3055
Photo: Peter Prado