Danny Hoch plays nine different characters in his provocative if overly simplistic new solo show about the effects of gentrification on urban communities — specifically the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. Hoch is a so-called hip-hop theater artist: His shows are immersed in hip-hop culture and involve characters who are rappers and MCs using language that evokes the rhythms and cadences of rap music. On the surface, the personalities and circumstances Hoch inhabits seem very different. They include a multitasking middle-aged white property developer, a foul-mouthed Dominican taxi dispatcher, and a black rapper with a passion for Noam Chomsky. Yet upon closer examination, the characters, though seemingly different, are remarkably similar.
Hoch's expert attention to detail and sense of humor help to bring out the contrasts. In one of the most memorable sections of the 90-minute production currently receiving its world premiere under the direction of Tony Taccone at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Hoch embodies the character of Marion, a black longtime Williamsburg resident who describes the surreal nature of living in a place that seems more like a movie set depicting "some street in Paris" than the neighborhood she knows. Dressed in an oversize green knitted cardigan, cradling a coffee mug, and sitting with her knees pressed pertly together on the stoop in front of her home, Marion warmly confides her feelings about her changing environment to a neighbor. Hoch pitches this character just right by matching social critique with comedy: Marion's befuddlement over the influx of high-end French-style cafes and boutiques, and the "resident tourists" who shop and eat in them, is comically offset by her predilection for niçoise salads and almond croissants. Marion may not be able to afford four-dollar pastries, but because she's "invisible" to the upscale cafe staff and clientele, no one notices when she sneaks in and steals a few.
Equally well observed is Hoch's characterization of Kaitlin, a white pseudohippie traveler chick from the Midwest. Her search for authenticity has led her to Williamsburg, where she makes a living as a street vendor selling T-shirts with ironic slogans, Virgin Mary bookbags, and jewelry made from recycled electronic parts. Swathed in a vaguely indigenous wrap and daft-looking bobblehat and speaking to passersby in chiming "valley girl" cadences, Kaitlin is the picture of the privileged middle-class kid striving to get in touch with some kind of reality, no matter how misguided her attempts might be.
Hoch's talents as a performer and writer make us think that he's tackling the subject of gentrification from many different perspectives. But he actually offers only one: the viewpoint of someone radically opposed to urban development who believes that a community is defined solely by its long-term residents and that everyone else should stay away. You have only to look below the surface of the play to see what's really going on. While all of the "authentic" Williamsburg residents depicted by Hoch are likable — or at the very least worthy of empathy — the new arrivals are stupid, evil, or both.
The contrast between Marion and Kaitlin perfectly illustrates the point. We laugh with the disenfranchised true local, but at the vacuous interloper. The image of a woman used to eating "Ding Dongs for dinner" filching croissants from an expensive cafe is absurd, but the joke is on the rich colonizers rather than the innocent local. Marion is like a Native American given liquor in exchange for land by settlers four centuries ago. Booze, like French pastry, is a poor substitute for community, but you take what you can get. Every word Hoch pours into Kaitlin's mouth, meanwhile, rings false. She thinks of herself as a blue-collar worker, but she comes across as a fraud.
The same could be said of the play's other "resident tourists." In a scene set at an open house in a newly renovated building, real estate agent Francque divides his time between talking up its luxurious amenities to prospective tenants and yakking in French on his cellphone to a fellow agent about business opportunities farther afield. Francque is an object of ridicule not only because of his opportunism, but also because of his ludicrous Inspector Clouseau accent. It's equally hard to take land developer Stuart seriously. Although the character displays a canny businessman's understanding of marketplace dynamics (e.g., buyers' desire for "a safe neighborhood with just the right level of zing" and "user-friendly ethnic ambience"), he's as self-deluded as Kaitlin in some respects. "I build habitats for humanity," Stuart tells the journalist from the local paper who is interviewing him, a statement made all the more ridiculous by the fact that he's simultaneously attempting to do yoga poses for his $350-an-hour fitness instructor.
On the other side of Hoch's vision of gentrification are the disenfranchised long-term locals. They may not all be as likable as Marion, but we clearly understand where they're coming from. If the young grad student Robert drinks one too many beers at a community party and yells, "I really just want all you crackers to get the fuck out of our neighborhood," it's because he's facing eviction. When the awkward ex-con Kiko attempts to chat up an assistant on an independent movie set, it's because he's trying to connect with his surroundings and find work. And if the Dominican taxi dispatcher fawns in singsong English over his white customers but hurls insults in machine-gun Spanish at the Latino drivers who work for him, it's because he's trying to get ahead in a hard-knock world.
"The most maddening thing about gentrification is its very duality, the way in which it simultaneously delivers pleasure and pain, miraculous benefits, and terrible consequences," David Zahniser wrote in a perceptive, panoramic 2006 article about gentrification for LA Weekly. The trouble with Taking Over is its tunnel vision. As Zahniser points out, urban development is not a black and white issue, but Hoch more or less paints his show in zebra stripes. The play completely ignores any of the positive outcomes associated with the renaissance of formerly blighted neighborhoods, such as increased jobs, more green spaces, and safer sidewalks. Hoch practically sneers at the idea of public safety and holds a bizarre nostalgia for the sight of crack addicts with knife wounds in their necks. He spends too much time kvetching about the viral spread of organic muffins, baby stores, and $1.7 million condos with their own city-approved water-taxi stops, and too little time coming up with a convincing solution to what he perceives as the ills associated with changing neighborhood dynamics.
I don't often disagree with playwrights' viewpoints (as my column two weeks ago stated, the theater is largely by lefties for lefties right now). But in this case, I came away inspired to examine my own beliefs about what constitutes a community. Unfortunately, though, my thoughts were interrupted when I suddenly remembered recently seeing Hoch dining at downtown Oakland's newest, swankiest restaurant, Flora (a converted flower market serving $16 cheeseburgers and cocktails made with fresh grapefruit juice and elderflower). The memory not only threw the performer's antigentrification message into sharp relief, but it also made me smile.