On Saturday Dan Hoyle unveiled The Real Americans, his much-anticipated follow-up to his long-running Marsh hit Tings Dey Happen, which won the Will Glickman Award for best new play to debut in the Bay Area in 2007. Son of acclaimed local comic actor Geoff Hoyle, Dan honed his particular brand of journalistic solo theater with 2004′s Circumnavigator and 2005′s Florida 2004: The Big Bummer. But the cross-section of players large and small in the game of Nigerian oil politics that he captured with chameleonlike skill in Tings was utterly enthralling, from warlords and militants to foreign oil workers and diplomats, and it was seemingly a hard act to follow. But with The Real Americans, he’s done a heck of a job.
Previously workshopped under the title Right?, Hoyle’s latest one-man show is based on his 2008 cross-country road trip to discover the “real America” that Sarah Palin kept talking about, a journey he also documented in dispatches for Salon and the San Francisco Chronicle. Directed, like Tings, by fellow Glickman-winning monologist Charlie Varon, it’s performed on a bare stage with only a chair, an acoustic guitar, and three baseball caps hanging on the wall.
Tings was told only through the voices of the people talking to Dan in Nigeria, with Hoyle never speaking as himself. But this latest show is as much about Dan as it is about anyone else, so he almost has to be present as a character in it. It’s about him trying to escape the politically sheltered, like-minded “liberal bubble” of San Francisco to try to understand what’s going on in the rest of the country, because it’s pretty clear that not just their views but their whole sense of reality is sometimes drastically different from our own. And ultimately, it’s about him failing in that quest.
Over brunch with friends in San Francisco, Dan grouses over how everyone in the Bay Area tries to figure out what Middle America is thinking, but nobody actually talks to people there, and his friends convince him that the best way to address that would be to go on a road trip across America and just talk to people. After all, one friend says, he doesn’t have a job. “Isn’t that your job?” Next thing we know Dan’s got a van and is rapping about what a great learning experience his trip will be.
And hooboy does he meet people: a slack-jawed yahoo at a ball game in Wisconsin, a conspiracy theorist gun dealer in Michigan, a hippie trucker who starts off reminiscing about the Haight in the ’60s and ends up taking a hairpin turn to the far right, and a nice Texas family of fundamentalist Christians where the grandpa holds forth on creationism, the grandson is shipping off to Iraq and the dad is a little too interested in Dan’s sex life.
In Alabama he talks race with a stiff-necked disabled white redneck who tosses the N word around freely and with a black ex-dope peddler who marvels over the white folks panicking about having a black president. An auto mechanic in Kentucky goes on about being a lifelong Democrat and union man one minute and then about how he didn’t vote for Obama because he’s a Muslim the next, all in an amusingly incomprehensible (and supertitled) mushmouthed mumble with an auctioneer’s cadence. He even runs into Ramon, a Dominican acquaintance from New York, who poignantly tells Dan about his own encounters with the natives.
The more people he talks to, friendly as they are, the more and more frustrated with political thickheadedness and willful ignorance Dan becomes, and he vents about it in songs and candid conversations with God. In one of the play’s funniest moments, President Obama appears to Dan in a vision, like Richard Pryor did in Tings, and tells him to take inspiration from the resourcefulness of the Donner Party in the wilderness.
Ultimately it’s not at all the voyage of discovery that Dan had in mind. He doesn’t come home with some great understanding of homespun heartland wisdom, and he doesn’t change any minds either, except maybe to do a tiny bit of fact-checking here and there. What he gets is a sense of a cultural divide that’s not getting any smaller, and is tearing down bridges instead of building them.
A prodigiously talented mimic, Hoyle draws the characters deftly, so that there’s little danger of confusing one for another. He does do one terrible Bill Cosby impression, but that’s intentional, or at least acknowledged.
As amusing or sobering as some of the characters are, it doesn’t feel like Hoyle is stacking the deck, simply because the most hilarious of them are Dan’s San Francisco friends: squeaky-voiced Marlene, who enthusiastically cheers him on; brash Dave, issuing dismissive pronouncements while typing on his palm pilot; new agey Pete, a cultural relativist who doesn’t “believe in buying”; and Emily, who’s from the South and worries about her newly knocked up and engaged sister being trapped in the life Emily escaped.
“I know there’s ignorance here too,” Dan says back in San Francisco. “But our ignorance? Nobody listens to it.”
While Hoyle’s show is playing on the main stage, upstairs the Marsh Youth Theater’s Teen Troupe is performing another world premiere: The Wave, a new musical by Ron Jones based on the true story of an experiment that Jones conducted as a high school teacher in Palo Alto in 1967.
To illustrate how easily citizens were seduced into fascism, Jones started instilling exaggerated discipline and uniformity in his class, inducting the students into an imaginary elite society, the Third Wave that soon students all over the school were itching to join, with a special salute and slogans. In just a few days he had students informing on each other for undermining the cause, until finally he had to reveal to the understandably traumatized students that their mysterious “leader” was Hitler.
The story inspired a fictionalized 1981 Norman Lear TV movie also called The Wave, which was then turned into a novelization by Todd Strasser under the name Morton Rhue, and more recently a 2008 German film, Die Welle. A documentary called Lesson Plan is currently underway, made by one of the students and interviewing the others. The story has been turned into stage plays before in Germany and Belgium, and it’s even inspired two previous stage musicals, at a Dutch high school in 1993 and then a 2000 Canadian rock musical.
But Jones is also a writer with a theatrical bent himself, so although he’d written about the incident before, it was perhaps inevitable that he’d turn it into a play himself. He’s also performed a number of his own shows at the Marsh, largely about his later work with the physically and mentally disabled, and going back to this story through involvement in the documentary and contact with his old students led Jones to reexplore the material in his own musical version of The Wave, with a new generation of students.
The characters all introduce themselves in an opening sequence, including at least one character, Mrs. Jones, who never appears again in the play. That leads directly into a bizarre scene of the kids chatting among themselves in the classroom, saying inane and incomprehensible things like, “I like tomatoes! Boom boom boom!” Then somebody else thinks this is so profound that she gets the whole class to say it: “I like tomatoes! Boom boom boom!” This bit is probably meant to show that each character has particular interests and quirks, but it just comes off as random disconnected utterances.
Fortunately, the rest of it makes much more sense than that first bit, although it was hard to stifle a giggle whenever somebody mentioned tomatoes. The play touches glancingly on issues of integration and sexuality, and you’ve got your type A personalities, youth gangs, musical theater types, misfits, troubled teens, et cetera.
The suspense builds nicely toward the end, although the intermission falls in an odd place in the play, in that the experiment still seems pretty innocuous at that point. It’s at about the hour mark, so it’s a good time to stretch your legs and give your butt a rest from the hard seats, but a much more natural break between acts comes a little later, when Mr. Jones says, “Won’t someone please stop me for what I am about to do.”
It’s a great topic for a student production, and the twenty teenagers in the cast tackle their roles and songs in this ambitious piece with tremendous energy and investment. Frequent solo performer Mark Kenward gives an intense performance as Mr. Jones, although it’s interesting that all of the teens have stronger singing voices than the one adult actor in the cast.
With music either by David Denny and Kathy Peck or by Emily Klion, the songs range from ’50s rock pastiche to disco, punk, spirituals and soft ballads, all capably handled by the five-piece band led by Frederick Harris. Some are a little uncomfortable, like what sounds very much like a romantic duet between Mr. Jones and the misfit loner who becomes the fiercest true believer.
The story is a fascinating one, but of course it’s also a bummer that leaves the students traumatized and wondering what the heck was the point of all this, other than that what happened in Germany could always happen here, or anywhere. The students are ashamed of themselves, to be sure, but Jones didn’t get off any easier from an ethical standpoint, and was ultimately fired from that school. Not for nothing is the big finale called “No Conclusions.”
All I know is I like tomatoes. Boom boom boom.
The Real Americans: Fifteenth show of 2010, attended February 6.
The Wave: Sixteenth show of 2010, attended February 6.