Accept No Imitations

UNTIL RECENTLY, I thought my Slavic accents were dead on. That is, until solo performer and mimic extraordinaire Danny Hoch burst my bubble and indulged me in a few Serbo-Croatian sentences with a distinct Sarajevan accent: "Lijepa si mala, prelijepa si! Lijepa si ko sunce, mala!" Now, I'm from Belgrade, some 120 miles from Sarajevo. Hoch hails from Queens, New York, about 40 times that distance away. Who do you think was more convincing?

Accents are Danny Hoch's specialty--Jamaican patois, Polish, Puerto-Rican, hip-hop demotic--and he can duplicate the subtlest inflections, the tiniest cadence shifts, and the rarest of expressive noises with the accuracy of a tape recorder. If his talent were limited to accents, language ethnographers might find in him a fascinating research subject. But Hoch is an actor first and foremost, and the multiplicity of characters he creates for his one-man shows are far more than linguistic sketches. In playing Polish handymen, jaded black rappers, middle-aged Jewish mothers, and a host of other urban misfits, Hoch's eye for physical detail and emotional complexity helps create people we reflexively recognize.

Hoch's gift for creating characters across lines of race, class, sex, and geography developed as the 27-year-old was growing up in Queens and Brooklyn--perhaps the most culturally diverse boroughs on the planet. "People assume that I come from the world of white America and that I am on some kind of anthropologico-theatrical field trip," Hoch explains on the phone from California, in an exhausted-sounding nasal rumble. Jails, Hospitals & Hip Hop, his latest solo show, is completing a five-week run at the Berkeley Rep before heading to the Walker Art Center this weekend. "In reality, these characters are facets of me and the people in my family and life. When I was growing up and I happened to see Dan Rather on the news, I always thought he was being broadcast from another country. In the world I come from, there was no ethnic, religious, or cultural majority. The fact is, I didn't actually experience white America until I turned 18 and I went away to school."

Hoch was singled out as the next big thing as early as 1994, when he won an Obie award for his solo show Some People at P.S 122 in New York City. Since then, a television version of this 11-character mosaic was broadcast on HBO, while the live version of Some People toured to more than 20 U.S. cities as well as Scotland, Cuba, and Austria. The press has been generous, calling his work "a fantastic breakthrough" (New York Observer), and singling out "his killer instinct, his energy and his brazen charisma" (Village Voice).

Not even the biggest fish in the pond have been immune to his charms. Coca Cola pursued Hoch for a Sprite commercial which he turned down on principle (it's a lousy drink, he doesn't drink it, ergo, why promote it?). Jerry Seinfeld flew him to L.A for the part of an Hispanic pool cleaner named Ramon. The romance collapsed quickly: Seinfeld wanted a stereotype; Hoch felt he had better things to do with his time and left the set. He later incorporated the anecdote into Jails, Hospitals & Hip Hop in one of the rare moments in which he actually plays himself. Even Nike wants him for a national campaign.

You may conclude that he is grandstanding by snubbing high-profile offers, but Hoch is just sticking to his principled, socially sensitive guns. He's done smaller things for his beliefs in the past, like dropping out of a reputable actor-training program at the North Carolina School of the Arts. "I trained to leave my community and forget about all the people on my block, in my building, in my family. I trained to be a star in some off-Broadway, Tom Stoppard play, or in Shakespeare in the Park. And that's great, but my neighborhood's not invited to that."

At 19, he returned to New York and spent the next five years teaching conflict-resolution through drama to adolescents in New York City's jails and alternative high schools with New York University's Creative Arts Team. It was this experience, coupled with an already street-savvy background, which led to many of Hoch's characters: the hip-hop kid trading "yo' mama" jokes ("Yo' mama so stupid she got stabbed in a shoot-out") and dreaming about the big time; the cynical, AIDS-infected inmate; the disabled Puerto Rican who shyly tells his life story as he hits on a young woman; and countless others.

While he is passionately political, none of the portraits Hoch paints are opinionated rants. "People don't come to my shows for my politics," Hoch concedes, "they come to be entertained. The idea is to get the audience to laugh at themselves rather than at the characters onstage. At the end of the show, even when I'm playing an old Jewish woman, a 40-year-old black man will come up to me and say, 'that's my mother!'"

Danny Hoch's one-man show Jails, Hospitals & Hip Hop runs Friday (9:15 p.m.) and Saturday (8 p.m.), December 12 and 13, at the Walker Art Center Auditorium; call 375-7622.

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