People had two distinct reactions when Dan Hoyle told them about the one-man show he was working on, “The Real Americans,” showing at the Marsh and recently extended through April 18.
“They would either say, ‘Oh, middle America – that’s a wasteland,’ or they would say, ‘Middle America—it’s full of tough country wisdom,’” said the 29-year-old playwright and journalist.
Instead, Hoyle found anger during his three-month trip to small town America. Plenty of it.
Listen to the man who loved the music and sex of San Francisco in the 60s, but now rants against an America that’s gone socialist on him; the racist from Alabama; and a self-described union man who names former President Ronald Reagan as his favorite White House tenant.
“What’s happened in the country in the last 30 years has given rise to a reactionary movement that has a lot of passion and power,” said Hoyle, who sipped Throat Coat tea to remedy a cold during a recent interview. “The show isn’t a portrait of small town America – It’s a reflection of my experience. I’m trying to understand what is going on in the country and what this populist anger movement is.”
In the 90-minute show, Hoyle, a native San Franciscan who has a degree from Northwestern University in History and Performance Studies, depicts both the characters he met on his road trip and his liberal, brunch-eating, smart-phone addicted San Francisco friends.
Theater critic Robert Hurwitt wrote in the Chronicle earlier this month, “With mimetic skills that become more finely honed with each new work, Hoyle creates not just each new distinct character but the setting – a school football game in Wisconsin, a gun show in Michigan, brunch in San Francisco or a moonlit colloquy with God in Alabama. At times he morphs into four or six people in heated conversation.”
Charlie Varon, a performer and playwright, who has done many solo shows at the Marsh, directs Hoyle. He also directed the young performer in “Circumnavigator” and in his award-winning show about oil politics in Nigeria, “Tings Dey Happen.”
“The Real Americans,” he said, conveys a polarized country.
“Palin Country and Obama Nation are two different thought universes,” wrote Varon (also recovering from throat symptoms) in an email. “Dan traveled to the heartland and experienced this.”
The first six weeks of his 2008 trip Hoyle talked with union members in Michigan, oil workers and cowboys in Texas, and observed basic training in Missouri. Along with gathering material for his play, he wrote stories for Salon.com and the San Francisco Chronicle .
When he was writing stories, he identified himself as a journalist. Otherwise, he told the people he met that he was writing a play. The latter introduction made people much more forthcoming, he said.
“People have this perception that journalists will use a quotation out of context to nail you and a playwright is more likely to tell your story,” he said.
The most frustrating part of the experience, Hoyle said, was that he and the people he met often disagreed about basic facts.
“The internet and cable news allows everyone to read about what they want to hear,” he said. “There’s less common media experience.”
In much the same way he did on his trip, Hoyle spends a lot of time during the performance eating meals at his characters’ dining room tables
“At the beginning of the trip, I kept a list of the free meals I got,” he said referring to the generosity he experienced. “It was off the charts.”
Hoyle said many times he found people both sympathetic and frustrating, and he hopes that complexity comes through onstage.
“People would just be talking to you, and they’re really nice, and then with no sense of drama, they would start talking about the end of days or the world being created in six days,” he said.
Hoyle said that while he met plenty of reasonable conservatives and liberal hicks his play focuses on the deep divide in America.
Often audiences come into the play with an opinion about what they think of small town America. This, he said, makes it more difficult than doing a show about something like Nigerian oil politics, which many people know little about.
“I want to say, ‘Trust me. Go on this ride with me,’” Hoyle said about the new show.
Emily Wilson is a community contributor.