In his eponymous essay, Walter Benjamin writes, "The task of the translator consists in finding that intended effect [Intention] upon the language into which he is translating which produces in it the echo of the original." Dan Hoyle's virtuosic tour de force tings dey happen at the Culture Project is in no small way the effect of translation, in which the echo of the original resonates visually, orally, and choreographically from Hoyle's poignant and at times unexpectedly delightful depiction of those who inhabit the oil-wrecked region of the Niger Delta.
Hoyle's one-man play interrogates the issue of "oil politics," which he explored as a Fulbright Scholar in Nigeria in 2005/06, and throughout the performance, the audience assumes Hoyle's own perspective as a foreign scholar as Hoyle himself takes on the roles, in Anna Deavere Smith-fashion, of the various Nigerians, oil magnates, and hedgy politicians he encountered. What is perhaps most astounding about Hoyle's performance, though, is not necessarily his, in ADS terms, embodiment of those depicted in the play--though that is, no doubt, an impressive accomplishment--but rather the way in which through the embodiment he forces audiences to contemplate not only the complicated and dangerous realm of race relations in the Niger Delta, but also in ourselves as we watch this white man perform highly personalized, and politicized, versions of blackness onstage.
When Hoyle first takes the stage as a stage manager, who reappears at intervals to mitigate the theatrical with the autobiographical, it is no small shock. His posture, gestures, and incredibly liquid face take on that of the black man he is depicting, and I wonder, with some trepidation, if I am not encountering a rather postmodern version of minstrelsy. Yet, because of the grace he affords these troubled characters--many of whom are "composites, the monologues a blend of several people's words," as Hoyle notes in the program--and because his embodiments are not only of Nigerians but also, and for the most part unsavory, Europeans and Americans who are in the Niger Delta for their own monetary profit, Hoyle manages to turn what is initially a questionable political position into one of efficacy and intimate reflection. A striking comparison might be between the Nigerian sniper, in his early twenties, who discards his guns to pursue an unrealized dream to go to university, and the white human rights worker, who can only be described, in the overtly politically uncorrect term favored by an aged conductor I once worked with (and this at Oberlin!), as a "pantywaist."
The echo in tings dey happen is not only of the Niger Delta but centuries of colonization and subjectification in Africa and beyond, and Hoyle's translation of a harsh reality into an eloquent theatrical narrative is indeed a significant one. The question that necessarily emerges though is whether theatre is enough for politics. The issues Hoyle engages exceed their dramatic context on the Culture Project's proscenium stage--which may be NYC's premiere site for political work--but, much like the fervor over My Name Is Rachel Corrie, the hazard is of the curtain coming down not only on the show but on our awareness of and capacity to care for what was shown.