"I've never been inside here before. I don't like to come in here, because I feel alienated in my own neighborhood by this place, and that is kind of what this play is about," Danny Hoch said recently. His new solo stage production, Taking Over, opens Jan. 16 at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Speaking the day before he flew out West from New York to begin rehearsals with rep director Tony Taccone and looking around in half disgust, the New Yorkborn actor-playwright was seated inside the Roebling Tea Room, a recently opened, funkily decorated but high-end restaurant directly across the street from his home in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where he has lived for the past 20 years.
The yuppie meeting place was Hoch's choice, as much for convenience, it seemed, as to further emphasize the point of what his new work is all about. "Williamsburg is ground zero for gentrification not just in New York but in the country, because it has provided a blueprint for how fast and how violent displacement and economic development can happen in a short amount of time," Hoch said. "And Taking Over is about how gentrification is really masking the idea of colonialism and how everybody is kind of searching for a sense of home and disconnected from where their home is. And in the kind of neofeudalism that is the new economy of North America, people looking for home wind up displacing people who are home."
As in his previous solo plays, such as the Obie Awardwinning Jails, Hospitals, and Hip-Hop which 10 years ago also premiered at the Berkeley Rep Hoch channels a myriad of characters of various ages, races, and genders. Embodied with his ever-sharp dry observant wit, these include a major real estate developer, a Dominican taxi dispatcher, a French real estate agent, a revolutionary gangsta rapper, and a New York University student a "clueless hipster" from Michigan who protests that she feels "like a homeless person" after her parents cut her monthly allowance from $5,000 to $3,000.
Another engaging character is the guy who was just released from incarceration after serving time under New York's controversial, draconian Rockefeller drug laws. But he's been gone so long he doesn't recognize his old hood. "When he arrives they're shooting a movie on his old block, and he talks to a PA on the movie set and says, 'When I was growing up here people never came to shoot a movie. People shot things all right like [other] people or heroin but not a movie,'<0x2009>" Hoch explained. "And then he points to [a] woman in the window and says, 'That's my mother.' And the PA asks him, 'Oh, she doesn't want to come down and check out the movie set?' And he says, 'No, she's still afraid to go outside from the '80s.'<0x2009>"
According to Hoch, the Bay Area has consistently been the most receptive to his work. "The Berkeley Rep is one of the only theaters, if not the only theater, that would support this kind of show from its inception. A theater in New York that needs to economically sustain itself [is] not going to commission or fund a show at this level about gentrification in New York, because it's going to alienate their very audience." In fact, for the past 10 years Hoch has been unable to make a living as a writer or an actor in his hometown. "New York stories are no longer viable in New York City because the market is being informed by Americans. This is why you have Subway and Domino's and Applebee's and TCBY all over New York City so that Americans can feel at home," he said.
"Do you know how many vintage clothing stores there are around here and stores that I can't even identify with what the fuck it is that they are selling?" Hoch asked rhetorically. "How do you economically sustain that?