“So you’re doing a whole show on borders, huh?” says Border Patrol Special Agent Lopez, the first of 11 people whom Dan Hoyle impersonates over 75 minutes in “Border People,” re-creating with precise accents and varying physical postures the interviews he had with them. The aim is the kind of documentary theater pioneered by Anna Deavere Smith in works like “Fires in the Mirror.” But there are differences. “Border People” is less focused, more jokey, more apparently serendipitous.
Agent Lopez had stopped Hoyle’s car in Arizona as he was driving to New Mexico, suspicious because it was a rental in “one of the biggest routes for drug and human smuggling in the country.” Hoyle turned on his tape recorder.
Given its title and the opening scene, one can be forgiven for assuming that “Border People” will be about the worldwide refugee crisis, like a spate of other New York theater this season, or at least about the tension over immigration in the U.S. Some of the monologues are indeed in part spot-on commentary on these issues. A veteran of the U.S. Marines tells us he was deported to Mexico, which he had left when he was a toddler. “We fought for our country, but apparently it was never fully our country. Ironically, when we die, we’re allowed to get buried in a military cemetery in the States. We get to become American again when we die. Which is like a little late.”
This kind of irony abounds. A Palestinian-born in Saudi Arabia tells us he was harassed by Islamic Police because he wasn’t religious enough, and thus felt forced to escape to the U.S., immigrating to California – where, after Trump’s election, he feels harassed for being Muslim, and so is waiting in Buffalo trying to immigrate to Canada.
But the second and ninth monologues are from two different African-American men who live in the South Bronx, which is where Hoyle tells us (through his characters) he is from. Hoyle has chosen to include stories in which the borders being crossed are metaphorical, or internal, or, as he prefers to put it , cultural.
A young woman who has a mother from Ghana and a father from the Dominican Republic and feels like a misfit, rejected by Americans who identify as black or Latino, tells the story of visiting an Applebees and marveling at the chocolate cheesecake dessert, “Nobody’s asking like is it cheesecake or is it chocolate cake? They just like ‘cool, shit taste good’…”
If Hoyle has a political purpose in “Border People,” it’s less about piecing together a ground-level look at a specific urgent issue, as it is to undermine popular assumptions based on a range of identities. That big black guy living in the Bronx is actually a chess master. That farmer in Arizona tells us he might have been a redneck except that he’s gay.
Hoyle doesn’t change costumes or even accessorize – he wears the same black t-shirt and jeans. So they all of course look like Hoyle. But in a way they all sound alike too. Yes, their accents are distinct and expertly rendered, but almost all of them speak the hip language of American youth – lots of yo’s and bro’s. In between each monologue, Yana Birÿkova’s video projections show the landscape of Buffalo or Juarez that could have been the work of each location’s tourist bureau, accompanied by a different pop song by Rihanna or Alabama Shakes or Frank Ocean, which I’m sure were carefully chosen, but started to sound the same to me too.
Working Theater at A.R.T./ New York
Written and performed by Dan Hoyle
Directed by Nicole A. Watson
Scenic Design by Frank Oliva, lighting design by Jimmy Lawlor, sound design by Jorge Olivo, video design by Yana Birÿkova, production stage manager Kara Kaufman
Running time: 75 minutes no intermission
Tickets: $25 – $40
Border People is on stage at A.R.T./NY through February 22, 2020.The production is then scheduled to tour throughout the four other boroughs from March 3 – 14, 2020.
March 3rd & 4th @7PM: STATEN ISLAND
SNUG HARBOR CULTURAL CENTER
March 6th & 7th @7PM: THE BRONX
THE BRONX DOCUMENTARY CENTER
March 9th-11th @7PM: BROOKLYN
March 13th & 14th @7PM: QUEENS
IBEW LOCAL 3