Theater review by Naveen Kumar
Dan Hoyle paints a continent-sprawling picture in Border People, a solo docutheater play dedicated “to those who cross borders, geographical or cultural, by necessity or choice.” The writer-actor, who is white and based in the Bay Area, portrays multiple people he interviewed on this broad subject, from a black blue-collar worker who details his code-switching outside the South Bronx to an orphaned would-be migrant from Honduras who recalls his capture before reaching the U.S.–Mexico border. Hoyle’s skill as a performer make for an undeniably engaging and thought-provoking 75 minutes, even if the scope of his project is ultimately too vast to cohere.
Hoyle’s expansive purview suggests that his subjects are united by a common thread of their experience with borders, however disparate they may be in background and means. The experience of wrestling with and reconciling different cultures is in some way essential to each of Hoyle’s characters, such as a mixed-race teen in the projects and an Afghan refugee graduating high school in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. As the Bronx man puts it: “That’s a fancy way of saying…shit’s complicated.” That much is true, Hoyle seems to be saying, for anyone on the margins of white America.
At its best, Hoyle’s piece assembles voices that often go unheard, not only on stage but in public discourse around race, immigration and cultural difference—particularly since 2016, when he began compiling his interviews. In the manner of Anna Deavere Smith, Hoyle inhabits his characters with a careful humanity, using gestures and vocal tics to differentiate them while resisting slips into caricature. Under the direction of Nicole A. Watson, he’s convincing in every guise.
In a way, though, the breadth of Hoyle’s project risks flattening his subjects’ experiences and the very different stakes that determine their relationships to the concept of borders. The common thread of feeling like an outsider may only seem like a revelation to those who’ve never experienced it. Hoyle is adept at disappearing behind Border People’s various personae, through elastic features and vocal modulation. But the play might be deepened by an acknowledgement that Hoyle himself, and the personal identities he brings to Border People, are more than just a blank canvas.
A.R.T./New York Theatres (Off Broadway). Written and performed by Dan Hoyle. Directed by Nicole A. Watson. Running time: 1hr 15mins. No intermission.