The mumbling, fumbling state of Bay Area white liberals

Dan Hoyle’s “Talk to Your People” offers a pandemic journey into the 2020-2021 racial reckoning

Dan Hoyle has long said he likes to get stories from people outside his comfort zone. The actor-playwright has ventriloquized a drug dealer, a Mexican immigrant, a “Black Rick Santorum” from the Bronx and rednecks of various persuasions.

But never has he written a one-man show about the people in his own cultural backyard: San Francisco, where he grew up the son of renowned English actor Geoff Hoyle, and Oakland, where he now lives with his wife and two young children.

That changed in March 2020, when Hoyle was finishing the New York run of his fifth solo show, “Border People.” COVID hit and he found himself back in Alameda, waiting for the shutdown to end and witnessing the George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests. A call came from theater director Tamilla Woodward, a friend and collaborator, who was among the original signatories of “We See You, White American Theater,” a statement from Black and Brown thespians decrying the legacy and impact of racism.

One passage from the statement reads: “We have watched you amplify our voices when we are heralded by the press, but refuse to defend our aesthetic when we are not, allowing our livelihoods to be destroyed by a monolithic and racist critical culture. We see you.”

Though Hoyle said he wasn’t really thinking about his next project, Woodworth had a suggestion. She said, “Why don’t you do a show about liberal white people dealing with all these reckonings around race and power and privilege and masculinity?”

Hoyle told her he had already done something like that through his 2010 one-man performance, “The Real Americans.”

Woodward responded, “No, not the people with red hats at the rallies – your people. Go talk to your people, Dan.”

“I thought, maybe,” remembered Hoyle. “The next day I was at Alameda Beach and I started talking to this guy and he was a liberal white dude who said he couldn’t take the state of the world anymore and wanted to get out of his job in sales and start doing social justice work. I thought, ‘Wow, I’ve got the first character in this show.’”

“Talk to Your People” is not meant to be a defining document of white liberals in 2021, said Hoyle. It’s a pandemic journey, an exercise in “turning the mirror back” and presenting “characters who are mumbling and fumbling and searching their way toward the truth.”

“I started to get really into it. I started talking to neighbors and friends and random people I’d meet in parks,” he explained. “I really got into the different types and perspectives, the nuance and the comedy. That’s where I hang my hat: The show is meant to be complex and funny and also to humanize people.”

“Talk to Your People,” which plays at The Marsh through April 16, offers Hoyle’s incarnation of seven characters grappling with the unholy trinity of race, class and power. He has written three framing songs. “There’s a jokey song about virtue signaling that talks about times when other people do it and then when I do it,” he said. “There’s a rap that sets up the moment of the provocation from Tamilla, and there’s a song about being a white guy who tells stories that are not mine own.”

Hoyle seems aware that “Talk to Your People” is not the dress down signatories that “We See, You White American Theater” may have wanted. On the one hand, he acknowledges that white liberals often present a “social media and public-presenting stat sheet of our views and causes” that may not be authentic or deep. On the other hand, he has a hard time seeing liberal white people’s racial and class identity as a monolith.

“When you actually start talking to people,” he said, “it’s always more complicated. I met a guy who said, ‘Well, I’m super white presenting, but people don’t know that my dad is Mexican. And so, I’ll be in a meeting and get called out for white privilege and think, ‘OK.’. … Or I know a white professional jazz musician who made a living in a Black environment and then went to academia. He found the university to be a virtue-signaling environment, because his colleagues hadn’t hung out in working class or Black spaces, but they opine about it so much.

“There’s such a big gap between our actual thoughts and our performed selves,” said Hoyle. “In that gap, a lot of stuff festers.”

Hoyle is at heart a comedian and character actor, whose embodiment of people is a marvel to see. He bristles at stereotypes. He revels in individuality. In essence, he is a theatrical journalist, looking for the story not so much in the daily news but in the inner lives of his characters.

“This show is about getting inside the crevices that people want to avoid talking about – getting at what they really think about race and Black Lives Matter and defund the police,” he said. “I hope it both doesn’t let people off the hook and humanizes them.”

IF YOU GO:

“Talk to Your People”

Where: The Marsh, 1062 Valencia St., S.F.

When: Through April 16, 7 p.m. Fridays, 5 p.m. Saturdays, Thursday 7 p.m. starting March 3 (no shows March 24, 25 and 26)

Tickets: $25-$100

Contact: (415) 282-3055, themarsh.org

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