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Breaking the Mold

Date: Sep 13, 2007


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Danny Hoch hasn't graced New York stages for a while; his last big splash was with 1997's solo show Jails, Hospitals & Hip-Hop at PS 122. Now he's making a big comeback with Till the Break of Dawn, which opens this week at the Abrons Arts Center--only you still won't see him on the stage.

Instead, with this 11-actor "hip-hop" play, Hoch is following the lead of other solo performers, like Eric Bogosian, who've since become proper playwrights.

"This is going to play like a straight play," Hoch says between breaks in rehearsal for Till the Break of Dawn, which he's also directing. "It does feel a little weird. Some people who know my solo work might find it strange, too. But I feel about it kind of the same way I felt about Eric Bogosian's SubUrbia: All the characters seemed a little bit like voices in his head, and my characters are the same. I'm not in it, but I'm in it."

In telling the story of young activists in the summer of 2001, Till the Break of Dawn deals not only with hip-hop, one of Hoch's signature subjects, but also another one of the playwright's acknowledged fixations: a certain embargoed Caribbean island.

"I've had a bit of an obsession with Cuba for the last 10 years," says Hoch of the place where his would-be revolutionary characters go and get a few ideals bruised in transit. "I've been traveling there a lot in the last 10 years, mostly doing theatre. What it represents for these characters is a litmus test of what their own ideals and values are."

Hoch elaborates.

"Hip-hop theoretically began as a protest culture, a culture of resistance, as a result of civil rights and in response to the militarized nationalism in the U.S.," he says. "For a lot of people, Cuba was this bastion of resistance against U.S. hegemony in the world, corporate oppression, the strangling of colonized lands. Cuba has always stood as this star for the world."

And if you believe that, I've got some great cigars I can sell you.

"So this latter generation of hip-hoppers goes there seeking to be affirmed, and what they find there is not exactly affirmation," Hoch says. "They find something else. It's complicated--it's not black and white."

Given his penchant for hip-hop culture--which Hoch, incidentally, traces to the graffiti art of the late 1960s and the breakdancing of the mid-'70s, well before rap music emerged as the dominant sound of hip-hop--Hoch has been especially fascinated with the way an officially "revolutionary" culture has reacted to this uniquely American product.

"Hip-hop is super-thriving in Cuba, though it's gone through different phases," Hoch explains. "At first the government saw it as embracing American urban culture, which they thought was a bad thing--that it was celebrating capitalist imperialism. Once they figured out that this was really the voice of the voiceless in the U.S., they supported it. In fact, Cuba was one of the first governments in the world to subsidize hip-hop arts."

With subsidy, though, comes some degree of oversight.

"They found that young people weren't just taking the opportunity to talk about good aspects of the revolution, but also to criticize the revolution in hip-hop," Hoch says. "So they're actually now subsidizing the Cuban equivalent of HOT 97--the gangster rap with the bikini-clad babes. They're afraid to support the more outspoken voices."

Of course, as one character laments in Till the Break of Dawn, politically conscious rap doesn't exactly burn up the charts in the U.S., either. This kind of compare-and-contrast exercise is exactly the point of his play, Hoch says: "It's about the contradictions these characters were already living with, butted up against the contradictions they find in Cuba."

Hoch hasn't been idle in the years since Jails: He started the Hip-Hop Theatre Festival and directed Will Power's Flow in 2003. And Till the Break of Dawn is merely the floodgate breaker: Next January Hoch will premiere a new solo work at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, and still in the works is A Word Is Born, an "epic" hip-hop musical, which he's been developing at the Sundance Theatre Lab.

As such, Hoch has remained at the center of a lively conversation about what constitutes hip-hop theatre, or a hip-hop play.

"Does it have to have rapping in it, a live DJ, graffiti, b-boy choreography?" Hoch asks rhetorically, naming the four building blocks of hip-hop expression. "The thing that really defines it is that the issues and language and characters are specific to the hip-hop generation. It doesn't have to have rappers in it, as much as deal with issues relevant to hip-hop generation."

If anyone can add a fifth element to the hip-hop arsenal--namely, theatre--it would be the multitalented Hoch.

For tickets to Till the Break of Dawn, go here.