Jails, Hospitals & Hip-Hop And Some People

Hank Hyena reviews 'Jails, Hospitals & Hip-Hop and Some People' by Danny Hoch


Hank Hyena
November 25, 1998 1:00AM (UTC)

Stage-to-page efforts are often anemic; when the oral blood and physical meat of the actor is excised, the skeletal text leaves us hungry. Karen Finley's pathos, for example, and Eric Bogosian's menace are both drastically reduced when the words are stripped of inflection, timing and image. Monologues require a careful recipe of spicy ideas, poetic flavoring and emotional marrow to leap successfully from the boards to the book. Is any contemporary solo performer gifted enough for this task? Yes! Or, to affirm more exuberantly in the author's patois: Word up, man! Yo! No doubt!

Danny Hoch's "Jails, Hospitals & Hip-Hop and Some People" is a mad wild infectious pleasure. The Brooklyn boy wonder's two critically acclaimed and internationally toured solo shows are fully alive here -- as one of his characters puts it, "type lovely, enlightened, and powerful." In his introduction, Hoch proclaims, "Hip-Hop is the future of language ... It crosses all lines of color, race, economics, nationality, and gender." This sounds linguistically pretentious, but the 28-year-old street kid who taught conflict resolution in New York City jails "represents" his assertion magnificently in his characterization of 21 complex and conflicted New Yorkers. Several vignettes are wrenchingly sad: Flirtatious Victor believes he's a great dancer because he's Puerto Rican, even though a policeman's bullet has paralyzed him for life. Living-with-AIDS Andy strives to keep his optimism and immune system healthy, but the jail food's laced with Percodan. Pervasive even here, though, is a warm humanitarian humor -- a populist's vision that we're all linked by similar desires for meaningful work, friendship and love.

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Hoch's quest to "portray the reality of multi-cultural America" -- a challenge he believes mainstream media has responded to with gross stereotypes -- is bravely addressed in the lone autobiographical sketch, "Danny's Trip to L.A." When he's offered a part on Jerry Seinfeld's hit sitcom, Danny agrees -- but he stubbornly refuses to play the locker room attendant role with a Spanish accent. "I looked at my fucked-up sneakers, and my fucked-up sneaker said, 'Always listen to your instinct, kid.'" Danny ditches the plum opportunity because his instinct won't disrespect the nonwhite friends that his street sneakers symbolize.

Even the most despicable portraits in "Jails" are etched with empathy. Brutal corrections officer Sam is revealed as a pitiful victim of the prison complex that economically superseded his family's apple farm, forcing him into an occupation he loathes. The bitterness of African-American Flex has similar roots -- the only employment he can find is constructing a new jail, "seven hundred cells we gonna build in that shit ... We gonna lock niggas' heads up all day in that motherfucker."

The sweetest gift in "Jails," though, is the joyousness of hip-hop's idiom and attitude. Somber English gets injected with dance rhythms and a streetwise point of view, especially in the rapper sketches like the sidesplitting "Emcee Enuff." Observations here, like "Once you taste a fresh tuna sashimi melt in your mouth, you don't want to go to jail," poignantly enclose both the ambition and the fear of the urban American underclass. Hoch's book is fresh and fly -- both as literature and as social observation. I ain't playing. It's all good. I hope he makes mad loot wid the shit.


Hank Hyena

Hank Hyena is a former columnist for SF Gate, and a frequent contributor to Salon.

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