In today’s information age, where significant cultural moments flutter in and out weekly, topical theater may not age well. But sometimes, art speaks to fundamental fault lines in a culture, and that divide is played over and over with different names attached. The Real Americans, a solo show in Mosaic Theater’s “Transformational Journeys” series, is this second kind of theater, exposing unhealed rifts between rural and urban America that are still the keystone issues in our politics.
Nearly a decade ago, when Sarah Palin said that small towns were the “real America,” she expressed one of those cultural and political divides that we still fight across today. When Bay area performer Dan Hoyle took a 100 day journey in a van to find Palin’s “real America,” he created a message in a bottle that sends an attempt at humanizing the people of small town America to the presumably the unreal American urban aesthetes. Now, after (depending on your point of view) the chastising or disastrous election of Donald Trump, that message rings with new relevance.
In Real Americans, Dan Hoyle borrows the solo show technique pioneered by Anna Deavere-Smith who is known for interviewing a range of people about a particular topic, then embodying those people onstage. Hoyle spices up his impressions with some music, including a YouTube-cringe worthy rap, but his interviewees form the bulk of the show. For sometimes better and sometimes worse, Hoyle is no Anna Deavere-Smith.
As a white man and evidently a chameleon, he extracts forthright opinions on race from a disabled pro-Confederate Alabaman, conspiratorial and oddly conservative talk from an ex-hippie, and even an ominous pass from a closeted Texan creationist. But he also uses his impressions to mock, with occasional heartbreaking mercy, his own San Francisco elitist brunching friends. His most compelling character comes from this group: a woman who feels caught between her chosen life of enlightened urban hipsterism and love of her family back in Tennessee.
The Real Americans
closes December 2, 2017
Details and tickets
But this privilege of cultural mobility has major performing drawbacks. Hoyle can speak easily for small town white America in a sensitive and truthful way, but he also makes the choice to present people of color in Real Americans. While that’s an understandable choice, after all people of color are real Americans too, the optics and signaling of a white man performing as a black man or a Dominican man are, as the kids say, not a good look. Anna Deavere-Smith, a black woman and character building genius, has the ability to transition those boundaries without violating cultural taboos. Despite the attempt at sensitivity in his portrayals, moments where he represents people of color are deeply uncomfortable and not in the good way.
This friction is most uncomfortable in his impression of Barack Obama, for all of his other impressions, Hoyle uses common people, not the famous. But his impression of the former president provides a yardstick for his ability to imitate on a broad scale and raises questions: Is he more loyal to accurately representing the person as they present themselves or is he more loyal to creating an emotionally affecting image of the person that uses more impression than characterization? Frankly, it is impossible to tell without access to his source material, but the fact that the question is present clouds his message.
And what is that message? Mainly that small town Americans are humans, too. Perhaps in a world of broad strokes painted by social media, there are some people who desperately need to hear that message. Perhaps some audiences who go to Real Americans to receive reassurance of their place on the correct side of our current divide will walk away with more empathy and understanding of lives that may seem utterly different from theirs. But for audiences who already have that empathy or those that count themselves among Sarah Palin’s “real America,” there may not be much to learn here. They will find a fun night of impressions, though, that are sure to cause discussion over the brunch table.
The Real Americans, written and performed by Dan Hoyle. Directed by Charlie Varon. Lighting and Set Design by E-Hui Woo. Sound Design by David Hines. Additional Music by Mars Today. Stage Management by Jana Llyn. Produced by Mosaic Theater Company. Reviewed by Alan Katz.