Danny Hoch has been saying valuable things for years. As the founder of the Hip-Hop Theater Festival and creator-performer of such solo pieces as 1998’s “Jails, Hospitals, and Hip-Hop,” he has proven that rap, poetry, dance and theater can be fused into thundering political statements. With “Till the Break of Dawn,” his first stab at straight playwriting and directing, he demonstrates that his insights are still sharp, even when his dramatic technique is lacking.
Mostly, Hoch sketches intriguing possibilities. Both political and heartfelt, his script asks whether black, Latino (and, in one case, Jewish) twentysomethings can be activists who also get paid. In other words: Can you lead a revolution on behalf of your oppressed culture while also trying to emulate the financial success of the (white) majority?
Almost every answer to that thorny question gets a potent theatrical metaphor. In the first scene we meet Gibran (Jaymes Jorsling), a computer whiz who has asked his multi-ethnic friends to come to his apartment and plan a trip to Cuba. They have idealized the country as the anti-America — a place where there’s no racism, no one feels poor, and everyone is literate and has health care. They want to go there to learn tactics for creating change. But as they’re planning, they note an odd detail about Gibran’s home: The door’s lock is inverted. Anyone can get in, but no one can get out unless they have a key.
The characters barely register this fact, electrifying it as a clue only the audience can see. There’s something wrong in this world, we’re told, even if these people don’t sense it. Maybe they aren’t as free as they believe. When the action moves to Cuba, the message comes again. Looking for a place to stay, the gang ultimately rents a house from a white American businessman (Jimmie James). Once more, the dramatic space quietly contradicts their dream of control.
But for all he sets up, Hoch is unable to translate his themes into action. Once they’re in Cuba, the kids have no objectives, so they just stand around making speeches that don’t serve a plot. Eventually, the monologues stagnate; it’s hard to keep listening when nothing is happening.
At least the tirades are well written. Hoch’s ear for rhythm is as sophisticated as his political analysis, and the production’s best actors serve their tirades well. As art curator Nancy, pattydukes has an arresting blend of passion and stillness, and Dominic Colon is so natural as gangster rapper Big Miff that he doesn’t seem to be performing at all.
These thesps probably built their performances themselves, since Hoch’s direction is as unfocused as his writing. Too many thesps — especially James — literally scream their lines, often speaking so fast they can’t be understood. The less- experienced cast members also seem amateurish when they emphasize useless words, which is the sort of thing a director should be able to fix.
They don’t quite do it, but these missteps almost consume the show. Hoch does certain things very well, but as a traditional legit writer-director, he remains merely a tyro with potential.