The Real Americans
by John Stoltenberg
“Why am I a stranger in my own land?” the preternaturally talented actor-writer Dan Hoyle asks during his solo excursion into the heartland of America. Having set forth several years ago by van from San Francisco (“So long, liberal bubble!”), he traveled a hundred days to listen to “the real Americans,” the folks left behind when the country’s bounty got divvied up. From what plain-spoken folks he met told him, Hoyle created a theater piece peopled with characters he rivetingly embodies on stage, switching voices, diction, and body language in an instant from one vivid impersonation to another.
Since 2010 when the show premiered, Hoyle has done it more than 400 times to crazy-fervent acclaim from coast to coast and internationally. It now arrives in DC for a brief run at Mosaic, and my hot tip is this: The intimate Lab II space where it plays at Atlas is going to fill up fast—because The Real Americans is far and away one of the most entertaining, polished, insightful, and stirring solo performances this town is likely to see.
Hoyle calls his genre “journalistic theater,” which is okay as shorthand but doesn’t convey the vast content of conscience in what he does. For if what he does is reporting, it is more like corporeal rapport. If what he does is write, it is more like authorial embodying. He doesn’t so much depict as inhabit them, and he channels with utter respect what makes them tick.
Hoyle has been aptly compared to Anna Deveare Smith, who pioneered the art of recording conversations with people—typically on two sides of a political divide—then crafting their words into scripts, which in performance she inflected with uncanny precision and transformative veracity. Hoyle’s consummate skill set also recalls Richard Pryor’s and Robin Williams’s. As comic mime and mimic, he’s nearly peerless.
Like Smith, Hoyle transits back and forth between two social spheres on two sides of a chasm—friends of his in San Francisco (who might be seen by outsiders as a bunch of liberals who brunch) and the people he meets on his travels (who might be stereotyped as hicks and rednecks but who in fact are hurting bad because, as one says, “This country done lost its way”).
Hoyle works on a bare stage set with but a chair, a hatrack, and a guitar, which at points he plays. Lighting Designer E-hui Woo contributes lovely color effects when he sings. Sound Designer David Hines brings in an eclectic mix of pop, hip-hop, and country. And whatever has been done to shape and pace the show by Director Charlie Varon (a longtime collaborator of Hoyle’s) is spot-on. It plays flawlessly.
About an hour in, Hoyle stops and says, “That was the show I performed until a year ago.” Indeed all the references have been to the Obama era. The show then pivots to an epilogue, a passage where Hoyle revisits some of the people he introduced us to before, to get their take on Trump and why they voted for him. The insights in this section are preconception shattering and the last ten minutes speak volumes.
Remarkably, the humor in The Real Americans, which amps up to belly-laugh level, is never about ridiculing the people Hoyle makes present. They say things that are funny, and his meticulous mimesis is intrinsically hilarious, yet his characters are not the butt of derision.
On the contrary, Hoyle’s performance models a way of being in this politically fractured world as a conscientiously compassionate listener. In bringing us into the lives of others whom we might automatically “otherize,” The Real Americans points to the possibility of a mode of existence that the poet Walt Whitman aspired to when he wrote “I contain multitudes” and the playwright Terrence meant when he wrote “Nothing human is alien to me.”
Put simply, where there is hearing, there is hope for healing. Go see Dan Hoyle show how.
Running Time: 70 minutes, with no intermission.
The Real Americans plays through December 22, 2017, at Mosaic Theater Company of DC performing in Lab II at Atlas Performing Arts Center – 1333 H Street NE, in Washington, D.C. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 399-7993 ext. 2, or purchase them online.
From December 1 to 24, 2017, Dan Hoyle’s The Real Americans plays in rep with Mashuq Mushtaq Deen’s Draw the Circle.