Danny Hoch brings to the Public Theater a message that usually arrives wrapped around a brick: “Go back where you came from.” In “Taking Over,” the godfather of hip-hop theater addresses his considerable theatrical gifts to the problem of gentrification, which the fourth-generation New Yorker takes very personally. Hoch’s solo show is deliberately, unapologetically unfair and has already earned him plenty of criticism (at one point the performer reads his hate mail aloud). But there’s no way “Taking Over” could spark so much outrage if it weren’t both engaging and at least partially accurate.
Even after leaving the theater in a snit, it’s hard not to feel pity for Hoch once you have a little distance. Not because he’s being persecuted by the evil hipster dweebs invading his neighborhood (who isn’t? Even the hipsters hate the hipsters), but because there’s absolutely nothing that will stop the march of time and progress. Hoch is exactly right when he says the history he lived through is being erased.
“Taking Over” gives voice to a series of New York natives (Hoch included), immigrants from other countries and one character who represents everything Hoch hates, and I mean hates: an immigrant from America. Watching the piece, it’s easy to tell Hoch is building up to this character, a Michigan-born NYU dropout named Kaitlin who thinks dating a Dominican makes her a real New Yorker and that “Time Out is such an important publication.”
The contrast between Kaitlin and the other characters is remarkable — there’s not even a touch of condescension in his voice when Hoch is playing a French real estate broker, or a dispatcher from D.R. who speaks Spanish in half a dozen different accents, or a black lady sitting on her stoop, watching her neighbor’s kids. A bored and slightly stupid little rich girl who sells T-shirts on the street, however, is apparently the worst thing a guy who keeps reminding us that he lived through the crack epidemic can imagine — more contemptible even than the craven landlord he also plays.
Part of what makes this show so troubling is the fact that it violates the “we’re all in this together” spirit of post-9/11 New York. Hoch observes that in a city fabled for its rudeness, the niceness of new New Yorkers is imported by people with money to burn and comparatively easy lives. Along with etiquette comes money, and when money comes, people of Hoch’s generation and social class go.
There’s a moment the writer-performer will probably regret including. As he delivers his penultimate monologue, spoken in his own voice, without amplification, he finally admits he’s been dumped by a series of women from out of town who come to New York, find themselves and then go back to wherever they’re from. He’s tried to date New York women, but he finds them “crazy.” This pretty much confirms what most will suspect — some of the anger in “Taking Over” is displaced.
In being as honest as he possibly can, Hoch gives us grounds to ignore him, which is a shame. Not everyone in this show deserves to be let off the hook, especially not characters like callous developer Stuart Gotberg, a dead ringer for Brooklyn real estate magnate David Walentas. Gotberg gives free rent to the artsy businesses he thinks will increase property values in neighborhoods he wants to develop, and prices the poor out of their homes so he can turn their buildings into condos.
This sort of greed disguised as philanthropy is a New York real estate specialty, and it deserves a few choice whacks with the theater ax. But for every moment Hoch spends appropriating authority to skewer the powerful, there are two in which he abdicates it to step on his neighbors for having been born in the wrong place and time.
Perhaps the most telling moment comes when Hoch recalls his encounter with “this WASPy kid with a Midwestern accent and a faux-vintage T-shirt” in Whole Foods, as he remembers watching a murder on the same spot 24 years ago. “I don’t really hear what he’s saying because I’m reliving this 1984 moment in my head. But I can hear the entitlement in his voice.” One wonders if Hoch can hear the entitlement in his own.