Written and performed by Danny Hoch
Directed by Tony Taccone
Limited Season · Thrust Stage
January 11–February 24, 2008
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Like Sarah Jones, Anna Deavere Smith and other solo performers who brought stunning shows to our stage, Danny Hoch took Berkeley Rep by storm with Jails, Hospitals & Hip Hop. Now Danny returns to unveil his latest work—a one-man tour de force that captures the indelible characters of his neighborhood, where the melting pot is boiling over with ethnic and economic tensions. Danny effortlessly transforms across the boundaries of race, age and gender, masterfully depicting a city in transition with compassionate and hilarious results. This highly anticipated world premiere is expertly staged by Artistic Director Tony Taccone.
Danny Hoch · Creator
Tony Taccone · Director
Annie Smart · Scenic and Costume Design
Alexander V. Nichols · Lighting Design
Asa Taccone · Composer
Drew Campbell · Composer
Michael Suenkel · Stage Manager
“The remarkable Danny Hoch lights up the stage like a dynamo, illuminating the entire Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg through nine impeccably drawn, vividly diverse characters (including himself) in an angry, funny, nuanced and provocative 100-minute look at the perils, complexities and injustices of gentrification. Sharply staged by Tony Taccone for its world premiere, Hoch’s latest solo tour de force is hard-hitting, riveting, gritty and irresistible.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“Hoch has created breathtakingly well-developed characters representing various sides of the gentrification question, and parades them across the state to provide tiny, complex portraits, etching the very good and very bad into his population…Equal portions of rage, irony, humor and clarity.”—Contra Costa Times
“Flawlessly performed…a gem of a show starring Danny Hoch, who you can be sure is from New York…It’s brilliantly directed by Berkeley Rep’s artistic director, Tony Taccone. Danny Hoch is one of the most energetic performers I’ve ever seen, and his comedic ability is priceless…Don’t miss this dynamic comic entertainer…You’ll laugh your head off with appreciation.”—KGO-AM
“The gentrification of his native Brooklyn provides a terrific focus for Danny Hoch’s patented brand of multi-character, multi-ethnic solo theater in Taking Over. Helmed by Berkeley Rep artistic director Tony Taccone, this intermissionless show is brash, richly characterful and frequently very funny…Hoch and Taccone have every gesture and beat tuned to perfection.”—Variety
“Let there be no question about Danny Hoch’s genius. To throw around a few adjectives, the man is fascinating, funny, provocative, entertaining and powerful…In a hefty 100 minutes, Hoch plays nine characters (including himself) of different races, cultures and genders…Taking Over is an extraordinary evening spent in the company of one man who fills the stage with compelling people and a compelling argument for living a more examined life.”—Theater Dogs
Prologue: from the Artistic Director
Pursuing truth through many voices
When discussing or describing their work, artists will frequently use the word “truth.” They will say they are “seeking the truth” or trying to “reveal the truth” hidden within a story, a painting, a dance or a song. It’s a loaded term, open to misinterpretation and frequently resulting in the artist being viewed as indulgent or pretentious.
The fact of the matter is that artists are pursuing “the truth” as seen through the prism of their particular consciousness within the context of the historical moment of creation. They are trying to see the truth below the surface, using their perceptual and imaginative ability to capture the deeper essence of something. All the while they are aware of the difficulty of the task, because just as one defines the essence of something, that essence is slipping away and transforming into something else. The world, as we know, is ever-changing, simultaneously being born and dying. So “the truth” for an artist is not a fixed piece of knowledge or an absolute, metaphysical reality. It is description of a singular reality born of a singular moment as seen through a singular lens. The great irony is that Art is the world re-imagined in its most subjective form, which, if successful, feels like the truth.
Danny Hoch is a truth-teller. His artistry is based on his ability to capture the specific rhythms and languages of a host of very different characters, to reveal their idiosyncrasies so inconceivably well as to appear truthful. His work is motivated by a passionate sense of justice, but his tools are humor and empathy. More than anything, he comes from the heart. Hip-hop is his creed, but he is defined by his humanity. In all of his plays, he is trying to get at the truth of who his characters are and how the world has acted upon them. The audience is aware that the world is of Danny’s creation, not only because he is a solo artist, but because Danny has the courage to reveal himself in the course of the performance.
In this new piece, Danny has moved past the presentation of underrepresented voices and into a more complicated dramatic mosaic. He has assembled a cast, all of whom are dealing with the effects of gentrification in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The result is a portrait of what is happening not only in every major city in America, but in many other parts of the world.
Welcome to Brooklyn. Welcome to Berkeley. Welcome to the world of Danny Hoch.
Prologue: from the Managing Director
Honoring the past, while nurturing the future
By the time Taking Over closes here on Addison Street, another Berkeley Rep show is going to be back in the limelight. Passing Strange will be on the boards, this time at Broadway’s Belasco Theatre in the heart of New York’s Theatre District. These two plays, while wildly different in form and content, share characteristics that you may recognize: vivid, insightful writing that speaks to our world at this moment in time; dramatic structures that challenge our notion of what constitutes a play; and characters who broaden our thinking about who we are. Both originated at Berkeley Rep, just two of the many new plays being developed as part of our 10-year initiative to commission 50 new plays.
Starting in 2002, Berkeley Rep stepped up its focus on commissioning writers, some of whom are seasoned artists and many of whom are just coming onto the scene. Our commissions help cover their living expenses while they write their first drafts, accompanied by our commitment to support their work with the readings and workshops that are so necessary to new play development. But perhaps the most important part of a commission is the public acknowledgement that we value the very act of writing.
New plays offer unique challenges to Berkeley Rep’s staff. The mutable nature of new scripts, with characters and settings that show up in one rehearsal and disappear in the next, requires that we remain organizationally limber. It takes an institutional commitment to flexibility to respond to the changes that come out of the rehearsal hall. Yet, the challenges are offset by the pleasure of bringing a new play to the stage.
In addition to the many new plays we’ve premiered, we’ve seen five commissions to completion, with ten more in progress. It is exhilarating to hear new scripts when they are read for the first time by a cast of great actors. It is glorious to experience the lights come up on opening night for a play that we’ve nurtured. It is most satisfying, though, to see an audience that is increasingly diverse and youthful, attracted by the voices of playwrights whose themes and characters reflect our times. We think there is no better way to honor the playwrights of the past than to nurture new playwrights for the future.
Hip-hop: Coming to a theatre near you
By Lila Neugebauer
Over the past 40 years, hip-hop has come a long way. For many people, hip-hop is indistinguishable from rap—but hip-hop is in fact a multi-faceted art form and movement that began in the 1970s as a rich subculture in the Bronx in New York. Born out of resistance, hip-hop emerged as a creative outlet for primarily black and Latino youth grappling with feelings of powerlessness and marginality in socially disadvantaged neighborhoods. In basements and at block-parties, hip-hop was first defined by four elements: DJ-ing (turntablism), MC-ing (rapping), B-boying (breakdancing) and grafitti. Many of hip-hop’s earliest rituals—like “battling,” virtuoso competitions among MCs, DJs or breakdancers—developed as alternatives to the violence of gang culture. Borrowing from Jamaican tradition, seminal DJs Kool Herc, Africa Bambaata and Grandmaster Flash began isolating the percussion breaks on disco and funk albums, creating a new musical form from them. DJs were recognized as composers, and they invited MCs to chant and rhyme over their beats to get the crowd going. Drawing upon dance traditions from West Africa, Brazil, Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, kids on street corners dropped to the concrete and spun: breakdancing protested the very laws of gravity. Skeptics dismissed hip-hop as a passing fad, but what began as an underground movement exploded into the principal form of expression for youth culture worldwide—from London to Cuba, from Brazil to Bosnia.
Hip-hop has been a staple of American mass consumption since the 1980s when MCs began to enjoy commercial success as rap artists, heralding the crossover from subculture to mainstream. Rap’s narratives of urban struggle proved hugely popular among white, suburban consumers. As a result, hip-hop aesthetics were increasingly appropriated as marketing tools to sell everything from fast food to sneakers. Commercial rap’s promotion of materialism, misogyny and violence turns many outside the culture off to hip-hop—and many within the community argue that the media’s portrayal belies hip-hop’s roots in a politics of protest and survival. Rap is of course only one element of hip-hop; hip-hop is a continually evolving culture that has influenced contemporary media, visual art, literature, fashion, language and performance. For hip-hop theater pioneer Danny Hoch, hip-hop is also “medicine, politics, education, grass-roots, organizing…philanthropy;” for many, it’s a way of life.
While the music industry remains the most visible outlet for the culture, hip-hop performance has emerged as a dynamic, varied genre of contemporary theatre. A generation of artists, raised on hip-hop and trained in theatre and dance, are injecting hip-hop’s aesthetics and ethics into theatrical performance—and re-invigorating both in the process. Hip-hop has always contained a theatrical dimension: its celebration of language, meter and verbal play echoes earlier oral traditions in African-American culture such as civil-rights-era spoken word poetry, and, earlier still, the West African griot, the wandering poet-musician-storyteller. Many critics have linked the oppositional aesthetics of the emerging theatrical genre to the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 70s.
So what exactly is hip-hop theatre? It depends on whom you ask; the term is not only elastic, but also contested. Some argue that one or more of the four original interdisciplinary elements must be present for a work to qualify. Danny Hoch, more inclusively, calls it “theatre that is by, for and about the hip-hop generation.” Hoch is best known for his trademark solo work in which he transcends race, class and age to tell the stories of the hip-hop generation. In Taking Over, Hoch scrutinizes the changing population of a Brooklyn neighborhood undergoing gentrification. Residents who have called the neighborhood home for decades find themselves rendered increasingly invisible in the face of predominantly white, higher-income-bracket “resident tourists”—consumers whom developers and investors (who once turned their backs on the neighborhood) now court. In dramatizing the resistance, protest and passions of long-time urban dwellers, Hoch strikes to the core of hip-hop’s ethic: giving voice to the underrepresented and marginalized.
Hoch has been a trailblazer in hip-hop theatre for some time. The diversity of his work attests to the genre’s scope, from his solo performances—of which Jails, Hospitals, and Hip-Hop, which we originated, and Some People are the most widely known—to Till the Break of Dawn, a more traditionally structured two-act play, in which a group of hip-hop activists confront contradictions within their movement. Hoch is also the founder and director of the New York Hip-Hop Theater Festival, home to the genre’s forerunners since its inception in 2000. Just a glance at the festival’s production history reveals the myriad works that audiences have embraced under the umbrella term “hip-hop theatre:” dance theatre, spoken word poetry, traditionally structured plays interjected with hip-hop aesthetics, solo performance and more. In this theatre, the tenets of hip-hop are utilized to renovate dramatic form, and content reflects the concerns of hip-hop culture. A spirit that protests the systematic disenfranchisement of ethnic minorities and the poor, while celebrating the polycultural voice of a rising generation—these are the roots of hip-hop, and this is the face of hip-hop theatre.
Where can you find this new, dynamic art form? You may have to work to find it. In the realm of regional theatre, the 1990s saw a few offerings of traditionally structured plays informed by hip-hop sensibilities. The rhyme-soaked libretto of the 1995 Broadway hit Bring in ‘da Noise/Bring in ‘da Funk introduced a mainstream theatre audience to hip-hop aesthetics, and In The Heights, a hip-hop musical set in New York’s primarily Latino Washington Heights neighborhood, has recently announced a transfer to Broadway. These exceptions aside, hip-hop theatre has primarily been developed and produced on alternative stages and college campuses. Many hip-hop theatre productions picked up by mainstream theatres have been relegated to their smaller spaces, outreach or “multicultural” programming slots.
The emergence of the term “hip-hop theatre” has helped to forge and galvanize an international community of artists. But just as a label can empower, so it can confine. Do we risk ghettoizing or tokenizing the work of young artists of color that happen to feature MCs or hip-hop-inspired movement? If “hip-hop theatre” becomes the newest multicultural buzzword-box-filler, what will the implications be for the work and how it is received? The urgency of these questions has much to do with the voice of the art form itself: hip-hop theatre is still relatively young, but it is restless, constantly creating and examining itself. Will hip-hop theatre someday become recognized as “classical” or “canonical” theatre? It’s too early to say, but Hoch writes that “hip-hop is not waiting until it turns 70 to find out. Hip-hop…is not waiting to ‘get into’ Lincoln Center…hip-hop is not waiting for anything.”
Hip-hop silenced the skeptics by transcending race, class and geography to tell the stories of an entire generation, one that now outnumbers the Baby Boomers. If we go to the theatre to visit imagined worlds that reflect our lives, then the ethics, aesthetics and stories of hip-hop art will inevitably find their way onto theatrical stages worldwide. It’s only a matter of time.
What is gentrification?
Change is constant in modern city life. So what do we mean by “gentrification”? How does it happen? Who wins and who loses? What comes next? San Francisco writer and urbanist Benjamin Grant explains.
Gentrification is a general term for the arrival of wealthier people in an existing urban district, a related increase in rents and property values, and changes in the district’s character and culture. The term is often used negatively, suggesting the displacement of poor communities by rich outsiders. But the effects of gentrification are complex and contradictory, and its real impact varies.
Many aspects of the gentrification process are desirable. Who wouldn’t want to see reduced crime, new investment in buildings and infrastructure and increased economic activity in their neighborhoods? Unfortunately, the benefits of these changes are often enjoyed disproportionately by the new arrivals, while the established residents find themselves economically and socially marginalized.
Gentrification has been the cause of painful conflict in many American cities, often along racial and economic fault lines. Neighborhood change is often viewed as a miscarriage of social justice, in which wealthy, usually white, newcomers are congratulated for “improving” a neighborhood whose poor, minority residents are displaced by skyrocketing rents and economic change.
Although there is not a clear-cut technical definition of gentrification, it is characterized by several changes.
- Demographics: An increase in median income, a decline in the proportion of racial minorities and a reduction in household size, as low-income families are replaced by young singles and couples.
- Real Estate Markets: Large increases in rents and home prices, increases in the number of evictions, conversion of rental units to ownership (condos) and new development of luxury housing.
- Land Use: A decline in industrial uses, an increase in office or multimedia uses, the development of live-work “lofts” and high-end housing, retail and restaurants.
- Culture and Character: New ideas about what is desirable and attractive, including standards (either informal or legal) for architecture, landscaping, public behavior, noise and nuisance.
How does it happen?
A host of factors can contribute to gentrification. At the most general level, America’s renewed interest in city life has put a premium on urban neighborhoods, few of which have been built since World War II. Closer to home, the regional economy and housing market play a major role. If people are flocking to new jobs in the region and housing is scarce, pressure builds on areas once considered undesirable.
Ultimately, it is the particular qualities of a district that make it desirable to a new population and ripe for change. The availability of cheap housing is a major draw, especially if the building stock is distinctive and appealing. Old houses or industrial buildings often attract people looking for a “fixer-upper” to invest in.
The amenities of city life—attractive, walkable districts, close to jobs and services and well-served by transit—are also appealing. So are cultural amenities like a diverse population, a vital street life and an active arts community.
Gentrification works by accretion—gathering momentum like a snowball. Few people are willing to move into an unfamiliar neighborhood across class and racial lines. Once a few familiar faces are present, more new arrivals are willing to make the move. Word travels that an attractive neighborhood has been “discovered” and the pace of change accelerates rapidly.
Consequences of gentrification
In certain respects, a neighborhood that is gentrified can become a “victim of its own success.” The upward spiral of desirability, increasing property values and rents often erode the very qualities that began attracting a new population.
When success comes to a place it does not always come to its people and communities, and the most troubling consequence of gentrification can be the displacement of the existing community. Communities provide much more than housing and shops. Social and cultural relationships, traditions and support networks are intimately tied to place, and when people are scattered by sudden change, much is lost.
No one is more vulnerable to the effects of gentrification than renters. When prices go up, tenants are pushed out, whether through natural turnover, as people move out, rent hikes or evictions. When buildings are sold, buyers often evict the existing tenants to move in themselves, combine several units or bring in new tenants at a higher rate. Rental units can also be converted to condominiums for sale. Tenant protections vary widely from place to place, but can only soften the blow to renters, who are the overwhelming losers in the gentrification process.
If residents own their homes, which is common in some poor neighborhoods, there is some degree of compensation built into the process of change. As prices rise, residents may opt to “cash in” on homes that they may own outright and move elsewhere. Their options may be limited if there is a regional housing shortage, however, and cash does not always compensate for less tangible losses.
The economic effects of gentrification vary widely, but the arrival of new investment, new spending power and a new tax base usually result in significant increased economic activity. Rehabilitation, housing development, new shops and restaurants and new, higher-wage jobs are often part of the picture. Previous residents may benefit from some of this development, particularly in the form of service sector and construction jobs, but much of it may be out of reach to all but the tech-savvy educated newcomers.
Some local economic activity may also be forced out—either by rising rents or shifting sensibilities. Industrial activities that employ local workers may be viewed as a nuisance or environmental hazard by new arrivals. Local shops may lose their leases under pressure from posh boutiques and restaurants.
Physical changes also accompany gentrification. Older buildings are rehabilitated and new construction occurs. Public improvements—to streets, parks and infrastructure—may accompany government revitalization efforts or occur as new residents organize to demand public services. New arrivals often push hard to improve the district esthetically, and may eventually codify new standards through design guidelines, the definition of historic structures and districts and the use of blight and nuisance laws.
The social, economic and physical impacts of gentrification often result in serious political conflict, exacerbated by differences in race, class and culture. Earlier residents may feel embattled, ignored and excluded from their own communities. New arrivals are often mystified by accusations that their efforts to improve local conditions and their financial investment in a depressed neighborhood are perceived as hostile or even racist.
Concerns about increasing rent, displacement and the disruption of existing communities can be galvanizing forces for communities experiencing gentrification, and many become more organized as a consequence. In some cases, communities have campaigned successfully for city policies that protect them from rapid change and broaden the benefits of economic development.
Change—in fortunes, in populations, in the physical fabric of communities—is an abiding feature of urban life. But change nearly always involves winners and losers, and low-income people are rarely the winners. The effects of gentrification vary widely with the particular local circumstances. Residents, community development corporations and city governments across the country are struggling to manage these inevitable changes to create a win-win situation for everyone involved.
Benjamin Grant is an urban designer, city planner and writer in the San Francisco Bay Area. His piece “What is Gentrification?” appeared as an online special feature in conjunction with the PBS documentary film Flag Wars.
A trailer for Berkeley Rep’s production of Taking Over, written and performed by Danny Hoch.