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Theatre in Review: Border People (Working Theater/ART NY Theatres)

Caption: Dan Hoyle. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

If you're feeling depressed by the endless, cankerous debate about immigration that has gripped the nation in the last few years, Border People may very well be the tonic you need, a balm of sweet reason and powerful, nuanced insight applied to a subject that, at times, seems to be driving us collectively insane. Roaming from Canada to Mexico, playwright/actor Dan Hoyle interviewed a variety of subjects, each of whom casts a different light on the knotted, unhappy way we live now, exploring an American way of life that seemingly depends on constantly throwing up walls to exclude people we choose not to understand. Reproducing a hard-to-forget parade of personalities, Hoyle paints a discomfiting picture of an American melting pot gone dismayingly cold. It's a gorgeous chorus of individual voices for those who are willing to hear.

Gifted with an eye for the detail that reveals all, Hoyle presents a number of characters who shatter the usual stereotypes that define immigrants in the popular mind. For example, there's Hani, raised in Saudi Arabia, the son of Palestinian refugees; denied citizenship there, he held down a job in real estate until he ran afoul of the Islamic police for failing to pray five times a day. Assaulted and threatened with uglier fates, he fled to California, where, for a time, he prospered -- until the Trump presidential campaign unleashed the racist genie. When his wife was subjected to racist taunts in a local market, they headed for Canada, enduring a harrowing examination before being admitted. "I'm thinking," he says, "in Saudi Arabia they are chasing me because I not enough Muslim. And now I'm running from US because I too much Muslim."

Then there's Mike Evans, who, like Candide, bounces from one misadventure to the next. Born in Mexico, abandoned (twice) by his mother, and raised by a white academic in South Carolina, he joins the Marines, is later imprisoned on a drug charge, and, on release, gets deported to Mexico, a country he doesn't really remember. After sliding into addiction again, he pulls himself together, hits the gym, and becomes a celebrated local DJ. Despite his sunny manner, a real bitterness lurks underneath: "Deported vets is dope," he says. "There's, like, twenty-five of us here....Sixty in Tijuana. We fought for our country, but apparently it was never fully our country."

You'll also want to meet Tiffany, a New York teenager with a Ghanian mother and a Dominican father, who finds she doesn't totally fit in with either her black or Hispanic peers. Or Jawid, originally of Kabul and now in Pennsylvania, who runs with a rich, preppy set. Remarkably, he keeps his cool even when recalling a youth spent dodging bullets and rockets; however, he defers his first year at Georgetown to help his mother and sister, new refugees, settle in Canada. "Some kids," he says, "are, like, 'Yeah, I'm gonna take a gap year and study permaculture in Thailand.' I'm, like, cool, I'm gonna seek asylum in Canada from these religious Nazis called Taliban. Good times." Here, as elsewhere, Hoyle implicitly advances the argument that statelessness is the default reality of the twenty-first century, one that too many of us, mired in the same tired arguments, are unable to grasp.

Hoyle also presents case studies of natural-born Americans who don't feel at home in their own country. These include Jarret, a black man, who, at six feet, five inches and two hundred twenty pounds, has to carefully curate his presentation, lest he come across as too threatening. "I dress in business casual now," he says. "Sweater vests, khakis. I'm like the black Rick Santorum." Larry, another black man, who lives in the projects, says to the visiting Hoyle (who is white), "The police is lookin' atchoo. What are you doing here? 'Cause you crossed over that line. You came into the projects. There's no law against it. But they thinkin' either you buyin' drugs, or you a cop." Perhaps his most original find is Gareth, a gay pagan who lives on a sustainable goat farm in Arizona. Avoiding the conservative local cowboy types, he keeps to himself, quietly helping the illegal immigrants who pass through his land. So disgusted is he with the status quo that, he confides, "I hope so bad we have a major climate event that just breaks society down."

A phenomenal mimic, Hoyle seizes in each case on a handful of traits, working right up to the edge of caricature, to quickly sketch in each character; at the same time, his empathy for them is never in doubt. His gallery cuts across age, gender, and language -- a couple of sequences are in Spanish with English surtitles -- and everyone is endlessly quotable. Mike Evans, discussing his new career, has restyled himself as the Mexican American version of Jersey Shore's Mike "The Situation" Sorrentino: "For once in my life, I stick out and it's a good thing," he says. The ever-philosophical Jawid says, "I like US better, but it's like Canada is the US of the 21st century. It's like America 2.0. Not to get all Tom Friedman on you." Zainab, who lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, recalls waiting for a fast-food order at a mall: "And my brother says, 'Zainab, look at Apple Store behind you, all the people are leaving.' I say, 'What?' He says, 'Your hijab. They think you are planning to put a bomb; they don't know we are waiting for corn dogs!'"

Nicole A. Watson's direction has surely helped Hoyle in shaping his performance, maintaining a fleet pace while avoiding any hint of the maudlin. She has also overseen a sleekly effective production design. Frank Oliva's set is defined by a curved upstage wall that functions effectively as a screen for Yana Birÿkova's evocative projections, which include overhead shots of several cities, desert vistas, and night skies. Also solid are Jimmy Lawlor's lighting and Jorge Olivo's sound design, the latter of which delivers a series of well-chosen pop tunes between scenes, including Rihanna's "Work" and a cover of "Higher Love" by the Irish singer James Vincent McMorrow.

Except for the heartbreaking account offered by a Mexican gay man who is HIV-infected, suffering the loss of his partner, and faced with deportation, these border people demonstrate a remarkable wit and resilience, which -- ironically -- is what makes the piece so dismaying. As one vividly detailed portrait follows another, it becomes painfully clear that, in our newly walled America, we are letting so much richness slip through our fingers. Are we doomed to the xenophobia currently raging throughout the land? As Lopez, a border cop and aspiring standup comic -- just the sort of unclassifiable type Hoyle has a knack for finding -- notes, immigrants coming from the south are his people. "But," he adds, "we can't have open borders, either. That's the big question: Where do you draw the line? How far open do you leave the door?" This engrossing and necessary piece suggests that it needs to be opened much, much wider. --David Barbour

(4 February 2020)

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