If you’re anything like me, you’ve been peeking through your fingers to read the news and watch the reports of the political theatre that was election season. Contests raged over who was the “Average Joe” for office, who was most in touch with the American People, as parties trucked in billions of dollars for respective campaigns. The Right is in top form of ridiculousness, with debates and commercials that read more like sci-fi fantasy novels, with witches and weapons, promising some type of prestidigitatious elimination of the budget through trumping up defense and cutting taxes, while the Left was off-camera, apparently crawling about on the platforms, searching for their spines. And both played brilliantly into the most tragic characteristic of the American populace: a collective memory shorter than that of a below-average fruit fly.
When I teach U.S. Theatre History, one of the major themes we return to again and again is, “Is there an ‘American aesthetic'?” Is it even possible? The U.S. is such a vast and diverse place, one can travel an hour from home and feel like a stranger in his or her own land.
And this is exactly the problem Dan Hoyle presents us with in his newest piece, The Real Americans. Performed for one night only at Joe’s Pub after a run in San Francisco, the piece is a docudrama of Hoyle’s road trip around the Middle in search of who and what is shaping the American character. Performing the folks he interviewed, what Richard Schechner termed “Acting as Incorporation” for Anna Deavere Smith, we are brought face to face with a cadre of citizens from Texas, Alabama, Wisconsin, as well as Hoyle’s home base in San Francisco.
Both sharkskin girl and I were astounded by the power of Hoyle’s previous piece, Tings Dey Happen, similarly styled from Hoyle’s investigations in the tumultuous Niger Delta. The Real Americans, however, seems to hit Hoyle harder, as the setting is a community, no matter how vast, that Hoyle belongs to. That he wants to belong to. As a result, there are some marked contrasts between the two pieces: most notably is the centrality of Hoyle himself. In Tings we never really heard from “Dan Hoyle”; he is only alluded to by the characters with whom he interacts, much like Isherwood’s “I am a camera.” The Real Americans is explicitly grounded in Hoyle’s ego—and not in a bad way. He presents us with his misgivings, rationales, and hopes for the project, and keeps the audience updated, as though we were his diary, throughout. The opening scene is Dan playing himself and four friends formulating the project in a familiar urban-project-planning space: Sunday Brunch, which sets off Hoyle’s emblematic first dilemma concerning a phenomenon that is “so pretentious, but so tasty.” The city, his friends, his lifestyle are Sunday Brunch.
And we are brought along on Hoyle’s encounters throughout the South and Midwest, we witness the interviews, we are placed in the thick of the Heartland that many of us cosmopolitanites complain about, but refuse to confront. There is the Texan minister attempting to convince Dan of creationism, a young man being shipped off to Iraq, an Alabaman dope dealer, a proud redneck, a New York-via-Dominican Republic Afghanistan vet, and a Kentucky mechanic whose drawl is so thick and jargon-filled, the audience is treated to supertitles.
The worst thing I can say about this show is that there are no real surprises: each character befits his or her respective stereotype to a T. Even the closeted fundamentalist can be sniffed out from a mile away. This can lead to tedium and frustration, at least from my perspective. But perhaps this was the wisest move on Hoyle’s part: most importantly, it reflects his experience, his tedium and frustration on a journey that began as a romanticized attempt to connect with “real Americans,” a project doomed to fail. But it also keeps the audience at a distance as well, with no shot at sugarcoating, moralizing, or romanticizing the experience. Hoyle constantly waxes reflexive and foregrounds his white liberal guilt, his dependence upon and skepticism of privilege. The audience laughs in recognition and, hopefully, with a small amount of discomfort. All of this is tempered, importantly, by the fact that Hoyle is a truly generous and talented performer.
A moonshine-induced phantasmagoria featuring Barack Obama ennobles a defeated Hoyle to forge ahead (using a disturbing Donner Party analogy), but perhaps the most profound moment of the piece is a phone conversation between Hoyle and a San Francisco friend, who excuses herself from brunch to tell Hoyle that her sister in Tennessee has been knocked up by a local. The sister was full of smarts and promise, but was never able to break away from Small Town America. The friend cries into the phone, an American caught between identities, politics, histories, and desire for a unified self.
I feel as though many of us understand this sentiment—this dissonance within—of a world from which we came and the one we live in now. Even more of a dilemma is the world we want to create. Hoyle can’t come up with an answer. He has little narrative other than geography, and that constraint is the heart of this ultimately dissatisfying piece. Hoyle cannot give us a message, a sense of relief, or even an inadvertent air of superiority. Instead, we’re forced to think about what Whitman meant when he claimed that “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” It seems those atoms were destroyed in a Big Bang long ago. Or on the Sixth Day, depending on whom you ask.