How many average-sized, white guys can start a one-man show in San Francisco taking on the South Bronx, slang-filled dialect and the smooth-moving body motions of a six-foot-five black man and not get booed off the stage? What if that same white actor employs numerous other ways of positioning his eyebrows, eyes, mouth, posture, voice, and even black tee shirt in order to depict Mexican, Iraqi, Saudi Arabian or Afghani individuals? What actor of the majority race can get away with portraying unapologetically on the stage other minority races and cultures, especially in a week when top governmental officials from Virginia are being pressured to resign for past instances of black-facing? The one actor I know that no one would ever question his sincerity of purpose or his integrity of such presentation is Dan Hoyle, celebrated and honored creator and performer of past shows such as Tings Dey Happen about Nigerian oil scandals and The Real Americans, featuring everyday folks from Red States telling their side of what is important in life.
Under the astute, sensitive direction of his co-developer, Charlie Varon, Dan Hoyle presents at The Marsh, San Francisco, the premiere of Border People, “dedicated to those who cross borders geographically or culturally, by choice or by necessity.” Based on interviews he had in such diverse communities as the South Bronx projects, Canadian refugee safe houses near the U.S. border, and border towns along Southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico, Dan presents eleven individuals who tell us their frank, emotionally packed stories – all authentically unveiled in their own words, voices, and cultural/personal idiosyncrasies. As each emerges from a brief blackout interval from the last story, we are struck that before us is a totally different looking person than the last we saw -- maybe this time with one eyebrow always higher than the other or with a mouth frozen horizontally barely moving while speaking or with hands that speak as loudly in their gentle waves and spread-finger placement on the chest as do their words being heard. And from all these mouths come accents ranging from the high, sweet, delicately accented voice of an Iraqi woman to the rapid, hushed Spanish of a twenty-year old (his words translated for us in projection).
The borders that each of these eleven have crossed vary in nature and location, but their stories all ring with an anxiety and often a trauma of living in a world where boundaries come with hard and fast rules, both explicit and unwritten. Telling his story of many woes but always with a friendly, big-toothed smile, Habib from Saudi Arabia relates how he escaped with his wife and four kids a Saudi Arabia where his life was at risk because he was not Muslim enough and how he then came to California where he was confronted and ridiculed for being too Muslim. An older black man named Larry tells how a 4th of July picnic with his family – a picnic on a park’s green grass that “If we were a bunch of white people we would look like a Chevy commercial” -- is deemed inappropriate for folks from the projects by a passing cop, landing Larry in jail for protesting his right to have crossed some invisible but forbidden (in the cop’s eyes) boundary. A young gay man tears up as he explains how he snuck into the U.S., met his boyfriend (one a manager of McDonalds, the other of a near-by Popeye’s), lost his boyfriend, contracted himself HIV via drug use, was deported, and now has no where to go because his Mexican family will not accept him. For him, many non-passable borders leave him few choices, with his considering stopping medication and just letting eventual AIDS solve everything.
As each narrative spills forth, the telling is void of commentary or judgment by the creator/actor himself. The policies of the current U.S. administration, for example, are not discussed; but their devastating effects are a consistent thread through many of the mini-memoirs we hear. We are left to draw our own conclusions from stories like that of an Afghani man who escaped a life that began living under the rule of the Taliban who gathered him and his boyhood friends up on Fridays and took them to a former soccer stadium to watch (and cheer on) executions. With narrowed eyes he explains how he eventually found his way to a Canada, where he now seeks asylum. He would prefer the U.S. but has decided “Canada is the U.S. of the 21st century ... U.S. 2.0.”
Likewise, we are left to contemplate how could it be a Mexican-born man with the chosen name of Mike Evans – “the whitest I could think of” – was adopted at five by South Carolinians, fought for his country in the Middle East, but was recently deported because he always thought “permanent residency card” meant forever. Yet we hear how when dead someday, he would have the right for his body to cross back into the U.S. to be buried here in full military fashion.
The overall resiliency of most of these individuals and even an optimism that still exists where one might think there could be none very much resounds in the honoring portrayals Dan Hoyle presents in his Border People. We laugh; we sit stunned and unbelieving; we shed our own tear. We also are left in sheer amazement of the hope that can still exist for an Iraqi woman -- now in Lancaster, Pennsylvania -- who faces daily discrimination for wearing her hajib but who says with a tearful smile, “When I make a new friend, I think, maybe this can be my country, too.”
Rating: 5 E
Border People continues in an extended run through April 27, 2019, with shows on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays at 8 p.m. and Saturdays at 5 p.m. at The Marsh, San Francisco, 1062 Valencia Street. Tickets are available online at https://themarsh.org/.
Photos Credit: Peter Prato