Another passenger just fell off the economic roller coaster. Last week, the Public Theater announced that because of "a loss of significant individual funding and a few key donations brought on by the current economic climate," it was forced to postpone the much anticipated world premiere this winter of John Guare's A Free Man of Color.
So it might seem an odd time to be complaining about gentrification. But in a tiny black-box space three flights above where Guare's play was scheduled to settle in, the one-man tactical unit named Danny Hoch isn't taking any slowdown of gentrification for granted; in fact, he's anxiously certain it's going to continue, economy be damned.
More than 40 years ago, the Austrian writer Peter Handke's play Offending the Audience included a segment in which the actors screamed epithets at patrons. That play now seems like a quaint relic.
But if it's become tougher to offend audiences, Hoch is happy to give it a shot.
Which is why toward the end of Taking Over, his crackling one-man, nine-character show about the changes that gentrifying newcomers have wrought in his own neighbourhood of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, he turns a cutting smile on the audience and asks rhetorically: "So … is the message of the play, 'GO HOME?' Yes, bingo, that's the message! No, I'm just kidding. Actually, the message is [expletive]you. [Expletive]everybody."
Anna Deavere Smith and Sarah Jones, who have both brought multicharacter shows to Broadway. But he has the intuitive intelligence of a street fighter, and he takes no prisoners.
In Jails, Hospitals, and Hip-Hop, his 1998 one-man show, Hoch did a scene as himself in which he retailed a squirm-making story of being cast as a Latin pool boy in an episode of Seinfeld and then fired after he refused to perform the role in a clownish, stereotypical fashion. The story was one of the first to draw back the curtain on Seinfeld and his co-creators.
In Taking Over, he's telling a different sort of uncomfortable truth, serving up sketches of Williamsburg characters that are infuriating, wry, heartbreaking, pathetic, absurd and majestic. There's Marion, a sixtysomething black woman who feels invisible in her neighbourhood that has been colonized by almond-croissant-munching hipsters; Kiko, newly returned home from 15 years upstate on a drug conviction, who finds the carpet-cutting skills he learned in the slammer aren't very marketable when hardwood floors are all the rage; Kaitlin, an NYU dropout only three years in New York who laments the area's disappearing grittiness and declares herself "an immigrant too," because she's from Michigan; and Launch Missiles Critical, a Chomsky-quoting rap artist and revolutionary who's planning a move to Montreal to enjoy the "socialist government, free health care, no criminalization of drugs" and cheap housing.
Hoch told The New York Times recently that, when he presented the show in workshop form, some of the usual theatregoers (that is: white, upper-middle-class) felt alienated. "And my response to that is: That is a good thing, embrace that, because that is what all of my characters who are getting displaced are feeling." Sure enough, at the performance I attended, more than a handful seemed to take in the spectacle in stony silence.
But when he took Taking Over to the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn before his Public Theater stint, audiences responded with raucous enthusiasm.
In fact, the play is not merely a cardboard lament against developers and rich white folks (though he does a delicious impersonation of a brash, cynical developer clearly based on one of the men who owns much of DUMBO, the neighbourhood next door to Williamsburg). Hoch is ambivalent about the changes: He likes some of the new bars in the neighbourhood, and a farmers' market, and "not getting robbed," and even almond croissants. But he's upset that police response times only started dropping once the white folks moved into the area, and he doesn't understand why it took the influx of rich American kids for the corner bodega to start stocking soy milk.
Toward the end of Taking Over, Hoch does a monologue as himself in which he reads a handful of letters he says he's received from audience members offended by his nostalgia for the crime-ridden city of decades past. But he doesn't want to bring those days back; he just doesn't want their memory to be erased as thousands of Ohio and Vermont and Oregon and North Carolina trust-fund babies with laptops, inspired to move to the city by Friends and Seinfeld, spawn block after block of cafés and bars and art galleries that are culture killers in the guise of culture.
His cri de coeur is a plea for authenticity and history and memory, for the gritty immigrant essence of New York to not get swamped in the monoculture that has washed over too much of America and the rest of the world already. According to Hoch, a fourth-generation city kid, New York is now only valuable as an export commodity.
"I haven't made a living in New York as an actor in over 10 years," he says in the play. "Not because I'm not successful at what I do. But because I tell New York stories. I make my living touring, on the road, being an exotic New Yorker for people in Florida and Wisconsin, and Berkeley.
"I gotta go to foreign countries like Norway, and Arizona and Pennsylvania to perform my shit, 'cause that's the only place people will listen to me."