Can’t we all get along?” Rodney King famously asked, and the answer that too often comes back is “Hell no.” In “Taking Over,” Danny Hoch’s indictment of neighborhood gentrification, the hip-hop monologist identifies several root causes, notably our pervasive blindness to the reality of those (especially the underclass) with whom we share communal living space. His argument is borne more by rage than strict logic, but you can be moved by his pungent observations and performance savvy without relying on him for sober recommendations on urban planning.
Hoch takes on eight composite characterizations of those affected by the resurgent (or is it insurgent?), newly yuppified streets of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, from an elderly black matron commenting on the passing scene to a Jewish real estate mogul practicing midday yoga. One linking theme is “authenticity” — what it means to truly be part of a community — and clearly those who reach the Big Apple from the likes of Ohio and effing Vermont can’t possibly pass the test.
“What a diverse group of people,” marvels the young Polish-Puerto Rican Robert in welcoming us to a street fair. “Get the fuck out! You suck! Nobody wants you here!” Again and again Hoch tut-tuts the renovating of burnt-out brownstones and the influx of artist types and faux-ethnic eateries, which force out poorer denizens.
Special scorn is reserved for fancy pastry and fresh produce, the false gods of a new prosperity “authentic” New Yorkers can never afford.
Never mind that this mindset tends to lead to nostalgia for the pre-Giuliani days of knee-high layers of crack vials, nor that Hoch’s definition would effectively exclude all the ancestors whose arrival gave their present-day progeny the “authenticity” they now proclaim.
Hoch struggles with the issue’s innate contradictions, stepping out to speak in his own voice and even citing critical audience comment from past performances. He’s reminiscent of Jimmy Porter in “Look Back in Anger,” reviling the system’s hypocrisy but exhausted by the lack of answers.
As an artist, of course, his role is to raise good questions and not necessarily to answer them. But his utter certainty and dripping contempt sometimes make him seem like a drive-by carper, speeding away with screeching wheels from his easy potshots.
“Taking Over” is on more solid ground with the theme of invisibility, a rude offshoot of outsiders’ invasion that’s neither inevitable nor excusable. Neighborhood doyenne Marion explains the free almond croissants she gets from a bakery where no one sees or acknowledges her presence. In the most affecting sequence, ex-con Kiko ambles over to chat up a film crew. Hoch and helmer Tony Taccone evoke the excruciating pain as an (unseen) P.A. pulls away from the man’s attempt to connect, even with an offer of free labor. Kiko explodes — “You understand what I’m sayin’ to you? You look. At me.” — but his abject apology and hunched-over frame clearly indicate he’ll be back in the joint real soon.
The world simply won’t engage him, but Hoch does. And while the actor-scribe isn’t about to offer advice, he surely intends we go forth and, if nothing else, notice our own Marions and Kikos.
Their scenes are brilliantly structured, almost as three-act plays, although a pair of one-dimensional portraits in the second half (a transplanted, irritating Michigan girl and a clueless would-be revolutionary rapper) lead to an extended lull.
Still, Hoch’s expert transformations always showcase his talent in high style, complemented by Alexander Nichols’ kaleidoscopic projections, which take us from stoop to loft to community center with a dazzling vitality not unlike that of the city itself.