By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
A sadness pervades Jails, Hospitals & Hip-Hop, despite the tribal thumping of Tim Schellen baum’s sound design, and even despite Danny Hoch’s hyperactive, often brilliant performance. In a work that premiered at Berkeley Repertory Theater, Hoch picks up more or less where Eric Bogo sian left off, in a series of eccentric character sketches set in the title locales. We meet, among others, a prison guard who has attacked an inmate ("No, the prisoner is notfine," he explains with muted irritation to his daughter, "but Daddy is fine, [and] that’s what matters"); the crippled victim of a police shooting (Hoch succeeds, strictly through body language, in evoking his crutches); and, in a skit that portrays the fabled American melting pot as both unifier and isolator, a kid in Montana who plays out the fantasy of being a black rapper while agonizing over which Tommy Hilfiger shirt to wear.
Hoch is a ball of charisma — as sociologically astute as he is physically limber — who understands the contradictions and hypocrisy of his characters, and of the national scene. "You laugh at my English, I laugh at your country," his Cuban character tells an American tourist when she rebuffs his offer of a home-cooked meal — and one of the many beautiful ironies here is that the Cuban knows so much more about the American pop milieu than she does. The heart of Hoch’s view lies in the effects, both magical and pernicious, of a culture in which style passes for wisdom.
In the performance’s high spot, for example, a hip-hopper called Emcee rehearses, Rupert Pupkin–like, for an appearance on Late Night With David Letterman. With all the requisite bluster, Emcee sits back in his chair and talks about being a model of social concern, all very P.C. — until, that is, he lets slip the truth about how the big time was, in fact, his reward for a corpus of hateful lyrics, written while he was on drugs. The downward spiral of Emcee’s fantasy results, finally, in growing belligerence toward Letterman and his stupid pet tricks: "A rodent has a better chance of getting on your show than me . . . People just want doodoo bullshit all day long! That’s why you’re doing so well, Dave!"
The sadness comes from knowing that by the time Hoch gets on Letterman — and he most probably will one day — he’ll have already been co-opted and silenced. Hoch is smart enough to know it, and the consequent anxiety lies at the core of his show.
In a now infamous story, Hoch was called from a theater festival in Cuba to do a role on Seinfeld, and on the set he realized he was expected to play the part of a Mexican pool cleaner with a heavy accent. When Hoch protested against the stereotype — and offered alternatives — Jerry Seinfeld promptly fired him. "They never even paid me," Hoch confides. "If they’d paid me, I wouldn’t be telling this story."
And that’s exactly the point.