Stereotypes provide gritty fodder, insight for streetwise artist

August 18, 1994|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

Danny Hoch doesn't usually climb roofs. But a photographer suggests a rooftop shot would be appropriate for this performance artist, whose work has a gritty, urban feel. Gamely, the 23-year-old New Yorker climbs atop the Theatre Project.

Wearing jeans, a T-shirt, African beads and a Yankees cap, the unshaven Hoch has a gritty, urban look. But don't try to categorize or stereotype him. Undermining stereotypes -- beginning with his own -- is what he excels at on stage.

"Hot performance artist. That's me. That's my stereotype," he says, while munching blue corn chips and hummus back inside the Theatre Project, where his one-man show, "Some People," opens a two-week run tonight.

How hot is he? Well, until last fall, he was barely on simmer. With one previous solo show to his credit, Hoch (rhymes with "rock") was spending five days a week performing in schools and prisons as a member of New York University's theater outreach program, the Creative Arts Team.

Then "Some People" -- his anthology of a dozen inner-city characters ranging from a West Indian disc jockey to a Puerto Rican woman -- opened a three-week engagement at the off-off-Broadway performance venue, P.S. 122. It subsequently transferred to two other off-off-Broadway theaters and ended up running almost three months. Rave reviews poured in from the New York Times, Rolling Stone and the Village Voice, which named him one of "culture's best and brightest" of 1993.

"Along with all this notice from the press came hundreds of calls," Hoch says in a matter-of-fact tone that's devoid of the attitude you might expect from one of New York's hottest. Among the calls were offers for movies and TV, and a lucrative series of 10 Sprite commercials that he estimates could have paid more than $1 million.

Hoch turned down all those offers. Instead, "Some People" will open (after the Theatre Project run) at New York's Public Theater and be filmed for HBO.

"I've come too far in what I've done and what I've seen to go be the Sprite boy. For the last four years I've been working in jails and alternative high schools, and it has reinforced in me what theater is about," he explains. "Theater cannot exist unless it is about community, it cannot exist unless it is about social progress, and it cannot exist unless it is about catharsis and pathos. And Sprite commercials not only involved none of those things, but I believe run counter to those things."

That's not the only reason Hoch, who exudes maturity beyond his years, was wary of the attention. "If I were to take up these offers, not only would I be 'commodifying' myself, but I'd be 'commodifying' the people I was portraying," he says of his composite characters. "I was afraid that now all of the sudden I'd be the white spokesperson for people of color."

The chameleon

It might seem strange that a white, middle-class Jewish male could be perceived this way, but Hoch, who was raised in a multi-ethnic neighborhood in Queens, is a remarkably chameleon-like performer. "I see myself as having no choice in doing what I'm doing because of who I am and how I grew up," he says.

"Because of his ability to use his language and accents, because so fluent in Spanish, and his background growing up with so many Spanish-speaking and African-American kids, it's not a put-on," says Jo Bonney, director of "Some People" and wife of acclaimed performance artist Eric Bogosian. "It all seems genuine when he puts it on stage. . . . He breaks through the stereotypes. He's so empathetic and sympathetic toward his characters."

An only child whose parents divorced when he was a year old, Hoch credits his mother, a speech pathologist, with training his ear to recognize distinctions in speech patterns and accents. "Ever since I was young, I absorb things. I'm fascinated with how things like racism and struggle and rejection and disappointment, how those things come out of people's mouths when English is not their native language," says the performer, who portrays one character in "Some People" entirely in Spanish.

"I think hidden behind people's fear of other languages is every other fear in the world -- fear of race, fear of culture, fear of class, fear of politics, fear of self."

Hoch created characters from the time he was a child, but he received his first validation in a junior high talent show. In it, he did impressions of Indira Gandhi, the Rev. Billy Graham and some neighborhood folk, whom he identified by name. "The crowd went wild," he recalls.

Troubled youth

Wholesome as this experience may sound, it was only part of a troubled adolescence in which Hoch says he was repeatedly arrested -- but never convicted -- for spraying graffiti. Also at this time, he was presenting magic shows at children's parties, and doing mime and break-dancing in New York's Washington Square Park for spare change. "I would make money from a party, buy drugs. With the money I'd get selling the drugs, I'd buy magic equipment and mime makeup," he says.

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