WILL THE REAL AMERICANS PLEASE STAND UP?
I was on a road trip in 2007 seeking to explore the plethora of National Parks that we, the American people, own. While heading through Des Moines, I came upon a huge crowd of people gathered outside an unassuming “Barack Obama for President” campaign office. Within a few hours, I had agreed to canvass for a man I knew nothing about. Why? The population attracted to this charismatic black man was diverse, unassuming, and excited: people of all colors, levels of education, and background were swarming in to Iowa from mostly Midwest states, such as Oklahoma and Texas, to guarantee that Obama won the Iowa caucus. I was star struck by the young political and sociological visionaries who milled about the scene—yes, some were calling voters on the phone, but most were engaged in fierce but loving discourse with each other. It seems I came upon a BBQ being thrown for volunteers. Wide-eyed, zealous, Kennedy-esque futurists—most seemed under 40—spouted ideas at me: “If we can get a man on the moon by the end of the decade,” one college girl said. “Why can’t we declare that cars will run on water by the end of the decade?”
While canvassing, I met many characters similar to those in Dan Hoyle’s The Real Americans, now playing in an extended run at the Marsh in San Francisco. Hoyle, best known for his solo show about Nigerian oil politics, Tings Dey Happen, traveled the American Heartland and Southern states during the nascent years of Obama’s administration, looking, according to his program notes, “to create a portrait of Small-Town American heroes with bubble-bursting wit and insight.” But in encountering the disillusioned, angry population whom Sarah Palin called “The Real Americans,” Mr. Hoyle found that this Republican insurgency possibly knew better about San Francisco liberals than the San Francisco liberals knew about them.
The show he has crafted is a series of characters, many of them composites of “the other half of the country”: racists, rednecks and evangelicals. With astounding mimicry, Hoyle succeeds in presenting with startling accuracy the very people I encountered while canvassing, but he also intersperses those Midwest / Southern denizens with four distinct friends at a brunch in San Francisco. While his in-the-know-type buddies appear as mildly obnoxious (the guy who never lets go of his iPhone and the broke Bohemian who claims to be anti-capitalist), it is the Tea Party prototypes who take center stage.
Hoyle is an amazing actor who changes characters with, literally, the change of a hat. His gift for impersonation is so remarkable that we can even the see wrinkles and pot bellies of those he interviewed, even though Hoyle dons only jeans and a T-shirt. With his sharp, chameleonic acting skills and unpretentious portrayals, Mr. Hoyle is easily one of the best solo artists working in the theater today.
The Real Americans, developed with and directed by Charlie Veron, attempts to create political theater by displaying the disparate views of Americans, many of whom are composited stereotypes. What he achieves is a snapshot of the early months when Obama’s approval ratings quickly melted away. While consistently fascinating, the show lacks a viewpoint, an examination of the universal truths behind these well-drawn characters—namely fear. Hoyle never ceases to entertain, and he certainly nails the profound disconnect between Obama supporters and Palinites, but there are few “Aha” moments that elucidate how we got to this point (for me, that would be the Reagan years). It is an entertaining experience which strongly needs a profundity to work as political theater. Most of Hoyle’s people, delivered as they are in a Garry Trudeau-esque fashion, need a Will Rogers-type commentator to pull them together into a bigger picture. For the most part, Hoyle’s reaction to America is muted and often neutral. It’s an interesting idea to let the audience come away with what we will, but the pointed views of his portrayals fail to conjure up universal truths in the way that Anna Deavere Smith does.
Perhaps I’m tougher on Mr. Hoyle because of my own travels, which went well beyond the Heartland, reaching into New England, the Southwest and regions beyond. I arrived at the door of a redneck similar to the Alabaman in Hoyle’s show who proclaimed that “terrorists never mess with Alabama.” This Iowan trucker glanced at my Obama pamphlet and said, “Ain’t this guy a Mooslum?”
“A Muslim?” I asked, turning towards the frightened young girl who accompanied me while canvassing. “You know, I’m not sure. I’m pretty sure he’s a Christian.”
“Yee-aw,” the man drawled, looking at Obama’s picture. “But he’s a Mooslum.”
After a few minutes of precarious conversation with this passive-aggressive, big-bellied bully, I stared at the man and summoned all the courage I could muster with: “Muslim? Don’t you mean nigger?” The man’s eyes opened wide and he stepped forward; the nervous girl had all but disappeared. “Yeah,” he said. “Maybe I mean just that.”
This was the beginning of one of the best conversations I have ever had in my travels. As I challenged the man about looking past what we’ve been taught, and pointed out how impacted I was by these keen volunteers, he and I spoke of who is more likely to protect us in the future—an army or someone who invents a water-fueled car so that we don’t need the oil that starts the wars in the first place. The man’s veneer melted away, and this gay Californian shared a beer with a somewhat frightening redneck. Iowa is full of them and yet Obama won the caucus anyway.
There is a conversation behind the small-minded liberalism and Tea Party platitudes, but because Dan Hoyle doesn’t challenge his interviewees, he comes away with a superficial view of this country, making me wonder if real Americans had been bypassed for a show purportedly about real Americans. Until a more daring concept is created, The Real Americans is a showcase for a stupendous talent, but hardly political theater.
photos by Patrick Weishampel
The Real Americans
The Marsh MainStage in San Francisco
scheduled to end on October 27, 2012
plays the Marsh Berkeley from March 8 – April 6, 2013
for tickets, call 800.838.3006 or visit http://www.themarsh.org