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[whitespace] Character Chameleon: Performer Danny Hoch puts his hands to work in his new performance work, 'Jails, Hospitals & Hip-Hop.'

Staging Hip-Hop

Danny Hoch inhabits a world of characters in 'Jails, Hospitals & Hip-Hop'

By David Espinoza

HISTORY HAS a strange way of bringing vindication to the underdog. The thing to ponder, though, is how often the obstacles that were overcome seem to be overlooked or forgotten with time. It's a story the hip-hop is all too familiar with.

It wasn't so long ago when the music that is now used to sell everything from fast food to cars was strictly an underground phenomenon from the East Coast. Though rap, or hip-hop, is certainly a remarkable form of urban expression, nothing assured its eminence in the entertainment world. But perhaps the signs were always there, buried underneath a mountain of resistance from an older generation.

Not that the triumph of hip-hop is news, but it helps to remember the days when much of the attention it got from the mainstream was negative. Recall the moment when the FBI opened a file on N.W.A. for their song "F**k the Police" to the moment when Ice-T released "Cop Killer" during an election year.

Of course, those artists represented only one sample of the many different approaches to rap, as there were always the Ton Locs, Boogie Down Productions and, yes, even MC Hammers. However, it can be argued that it was the Tupacs, Snoops and Ice Cubes who really set things off. Like rock & roll back in the '50s, the emergence of rap into mainstream America during the '80s and '90s probably benefited from a little controversy.

BUT THAT'S ALL in the past now. What began as a mainly African American but also multi-ethnic urban street sound can now be heard booming out of the subwoofers in the Honda Accords of suburban teenagers everywhere. Hip-hop has come to influence not only the face of American pop music but American culture itself.

Performance artist Danny Hoch knows all about this phenomenon. A native of Brooklyn, Hoch (rhymes with "rock") is what you might call a hip-hop chameleon. With a contortion of his face and an alteration of his voice, Hoch can become a Cuban street vendor, an alcoholic prison guard or a white rapper from Montana.

Hoch's characters are taken from his experiences growing up in a multicultural setting, one where his best friends were West Indian, African American and Puerto Rican--as he once put it, "I didn't realize I was white until I got to college." Equally important, though, Hoch's childhood was immersed in break dancing, beat boxing and graffiti art--in other words, hip-hop.

If a white guy playing characters of ethnicities different from his own might seem a little risqué for some tastes, consider this: Hoch is adamantly opposed to stereotypical representations of people, a principle that has made him turn down parts in TV shows like Seinfield and movies like Beautiful Girls.

At one time, Hoch might have ended up the way so many other NYC kids who tag and steal do: in jail. But as luck (and an encouraging mother) would have it, Hoch ended up onstage, a graduate of the High School of Performing Arts. He has done everything from teaching conflict resolution for at-risk youth to writing a number of critically acclaimed plays, like Some People and Jails, Hospitals & Hip-Hop. The latter show, which debuted in 1998, comes to UCSC's Arts Theater Mainstage Saturday (Jan. 22).

"People tend to go to the theater just to be entertained, and they think that if they're gonna laugh, it's going to be at what's happening onstage, not at themselves," Hoch says. He is referring to the humor present in his characters, like the white wannabe rapper from Montana who thinks his birth mark is his actual skin color while the rest of his body is one big birthmark.

The various idioms with which Hoch paints a picture of a multi-ethnic America have struck nerves with certain audiences at times. "Some theater-goers come to my show and shut it out from the beginning; they're like, 'I don't know what he's saying; he's not speaking English,' " Hoch says.

To Hoch, such reactions are indicative of people's misconceptions of what theater can and cannot be. "The language [of hip-hop] is different," he explains. "There's an understanding in this country, based on the rich European model, that we are supposed to use a certain kind of language in theater. But my understanding is that theater is about the people."

The language that Hoch speaks is one that will only become more familiar as time passes. It is also parallel to the rise of hip-hop, something Hoch has been a part of for a long time.

"I think hip-hop is coming out of its adolescence into adulthood and is having to figure out what to do with its life," Hoch says. The last character in Jails--a famous rap star on David Letterman's show--is a metaphor for hip-hop as a whole. The rapper lists all the phases that he has gone through, from partying to politics, gangsta to glamorous, then goes on to say, "Okay, now I've gone through all these phases, and I've accumulated wealth in this industry, and I realize how powerful I am."

As Hoch explains the scene, "Hip-hop has finally realized how powerful it is. So now that it has realized that, what is it gonna do with that power? Is it going to be just like the corporate America model or is it going to change society?"

It's a tough question. In the last 100 years, distinctly African American musical media have been co-opted and watered down for mass appeal, from the blues and jazz to rock & roll. And while some might call the suburbs' infatuation with hip-hop just a glamorization of the urban setting, there's no denying that when cultures intermingle and influence each other, attitudes change.

As for Danny Hoch, his work seems to represent the changes afoot, or as he puts it, "We're all from different histories and different backgrounds. I try to speak to a generation, and that generation is the hip-hop generation."

Danny Hoch performs Jails, Hospitals & Hip-Hop Saturday (Jan. 22) at 8pm at the UCSC Arts Theater Mainstage. Tickets are $20/$17/$10. (831.459.2159) (Disclosure Dept.: Metro Santa Cruz is one of the sponsors of this UCSC Arts & Lectures event.)

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From the January 19-26, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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