Based on a first visit to the United States of less than a year, Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville published “Democracy in America” in 1835. It was long considered the definitive analysis of the American character. Some consider it an affront that a foreigner would presume to better understand a society than members of that society. But it follows the principle that one’s own people seem so normal that it is difficult to understand their unique features and to contrast them with other people, especially if one lacks experience with other societies.
Applying de Tocqueville’s practice, Dan Hoyle, extraordinary creator and actor of one-person shows, fashioned the hugely successful “The Real Americans” in 2014, in which the Oakland denizen traveled to red states and interviewed mostly conservative people with very different inclinations than his own. He has now flipped the switch and created the intensely funny and provocative “Talk to Your People,” in which he has interviewed liberal people from in and around Oakland.
The concept was motivated by the confluence in mid-2020 of the Covid pandemic, the George Floyd protests, and a Black female colleague who implored him to learn from his own community how his people were dealing with race, privilege, masculinity, and power during these challenging times. The result is a show that touches on a wide range of social issues with Hoyle acting as the interviewees in about ten vignettes.
Hoyle dynamically represents this motley crew of subjects, who lean heavily toward the goofy and wacked-out. There’s the guy who feels isolated because in this age of technology, he relies on his cell phone for socialization. There’s one who in his mind is still a hippie but in real life is a successful salesman who hates his job. There’s the half-Mexican who looks non-Hispanic and sees discrimination as being more class than ethnic related, ignoring the fact that many minorities suffer bigotry on appearance alone, without ever being able to show their class.
Despite many seeming similarities in his subjects, Hoyle skillfully differentiates them with an exquisite array of mouth and eye movements, gesticulations, and patter. In two instances, he sings his accounts of the interviews. Between skits, the use of videos of the Oakland scene allows time for wardrobe changes to provide distinguishing sartorial looks, although all are casual.
Ultimately, this type of offering seeks validation on two criteria. Is it entertaining? In this case, the answer is yes. Is it meaningful? Yes, in that it triggers thoughts about many scattered questions of our time, yet it lacks a cohesive arc. In the show’s defense, and as one of its characters notes – the situations in question are complicated. And to complicate things further, a POC criticized this character for saying things are complicated as that defense comes only from a position of privilege. Who’d a thunk it?
Indeed, one takeaway from the show may be that being conservative is easy. You just say no to everything that you object to that will benefit those outside the privileged class. Being liberal is hard. In trying to empathize and support the underprivileged, there are so many ways to unintentionally go wrong. What is the accepted racial descriptor of the day? Do the underprivileged (is that word okay?) want help or do they want to do it on their own? How do they feel about abortion or religion or programs that favor one minority over another? As contentious as the relationship is between the Black community and police, do they support defunding when the police at least provide some protection from crime? Conservatives don’t have to be perfect, but when a liberal takes one false step (or even seems to), it becomes a catastrophe. It is complicated.
Add to all of that, that liberals are criticized for talking the talk but not walking the walk by not engaging sufficiently with the minorities that they intend to promote. Those liberals with great interest in theater will observe that very few Blacks attend, so that little racial communion occurs – sadly, even for plays with a number of Black actors. What to do? Give up a mind-and-heartfelt interest and try to find a common ground elsewhere? The same principle applies to numerous other activities. It’s complicated.
A final socio-political conundrum raised by one character is that people often try to persuade with the head – with logic and facts. He rightfully notes that more effective persuasion comes from the heart – from feelings. He goes on to poke a hole in his own argument when he queries – How can you persuade someone who says he “feels” that the presidential election was stolen or that vaccines don’t work?
“Talk to Your People” is a deserving show. One improvement would be if Hoyle lost his facial hair for the duration. It renders a visual sameness to each depiction that can’t be overcome with wardrobe and accessories, and temporary facial hair could be applied as wanted for particular characters. It would also make it more plausible to perform female parts, which leads to another deficiency. Hoyle’s “people,” at least in this production, include only one female, who is not acted, and no Blacks or Asians. Only one character is clearly over 45, he having been among students who were voluntarily bussed to try to desegregate Denver schools in 1973.
Each vignette stands on its own as interesting and funny, but conceptually, they are only loosely joined. If the expressed concerns about race, privilege, masculinity, and power were directed specifically to racial relations, the piece would gel better thematically.
“Talk to Your People” is written by Dan Hoyle, developed with Charlie Varon, produced by The Marsh Theater, and plays on its stage at 1062 Valencia Street, San Francisco, CA through April 16, 2022.