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"‘What are you?!! Are you Puerto Rican?’ I say, ‘Nah, I’m not Puerto Rican’ … but you see, he wanna know what I am. I mean my color is white like Bill Clinton, but that’s not good enough for him you know, in the way that I’m speaking."
In this monologue, New York actor-comedian- community activist Danny Hoch could very well be telling a story from his own life. Instead, he’s playing the role of a street vendor describing his run-in with New York’s finest.
Hoch’s current one-man performance, Jails, Hospitals and Hip-Hop, should be one of the hottest tickets of the fall season. In it, Hoch portrays everyday people, in everyday situations, in everyday neighborhoods. Even if they’re not your people, situations or neighborhoods, his characters are still easy to relate to.
Hoch challenges audiences to question definitions of we and them, and strives to demolish the kind of thinking that defines people solely by their ethnicity or class. In his performance, one of his characters says, "I’m from New York, but what’s that? A color, a race or a state of mind?"
Growing up in a multiethnic neighborhood in Queens, the Jewish-born Hoch identified with his Dominican, Pakistani and African-American neighbors. However, he argues that race is only one element that shapes our lives and interactions.
Coming of age in the ’70s and ’80s, hip-hop music and culture defined Hoch’s outlook on life. Crossing ethnic, class and gender lines, he says that hip-hop is a form of revolution. The goal? "Redistribution of wealth and power."
Since graduating from New York’s High School of Performing Arts and spending time in London, England, he’s worked in prisons and juvenile detention centers, teaching conflict resolution and life skills through drama and acting classes.
In his stage roles, he seeks to tell the stories of people from society’s periphery, particularly inner-city youth. And he is adamant about keeping his work accessible to that periphery by keeping ticket prices affordable. He’s also stuck to his principles and turned down many financially lucrative roles, including one on "Seinfeld" that he felt stereotyped people of color.
His résumé touts a Tennessee Williams Playwright Fellowship, a Drama Desk Award, an Obie for his 1995 HBO special, Some People, and work on Spike Lee’s next movie, Bamboozled. He also stars in Marc Levin’s upcoming movie, Whiteboys, as a white boy from rural Iowa who yearns to live in the ghetto with black people, where, he believes, everyone "chills in their BMWs and raps, and all the girls got on bikinis."
Although he co-wrote the script for Whiteboys, Hoch is leery of the final product. He says his input in the "direction, editing and marketing of the film was ignored completely," and the previews have been touting the film as a comedy rather than addressing its serious issues of identity.
Perhaps Hoch’s strongest identity is as a live performer portraying the complexity and contradiction of human nature.
In Jails, Hospitals and Hip-Hop, his characters share the same fears, dreams and insecurities that cross any socially constructed boundaries. A corrections officer rationalizes beating an inmate while discussing his dream of opening a gift shop for prisoners. A Puerto Rican youth paralyzed by a police shooting still hopes to join the United States Air Force so he can liberate other countries where the government will "shoot you ’cause they don’t like you."
Make no mistake, Hoch’s an entertainer, and a funny one at that. But as his words sink in, you might have to ask yourself who it is you’re laughing at.
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