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Danny Hoch’s ear is astonishingly acute. Making his reputation a decade ago in solo shows that matched hip-hop rhythms with characters that New York theatre tends to slight, he proved himself an impressive channeller of a rainbow array of types. In 2000, Hoch became an impresario, founding a Hip-Hop Theatre Festival that presents work annually in New York, Chicago, Washington and San Francisco.
With Till the Break of Dawn, presented by the Culture Project, Hoch has written and directed a full-length play, and, while his ear has lost nothing of its sharpness, his ability to construct and stage a two-act piece could benefit from further bolstering.
We begin in New York, where an internet hip-hop activist named Gibran is assembling a group of friends to attend a festival in Havana. Though progressive icons such as Mumia Abu-Jamal are bowed to and Karl Marx is referred to as “the German dude”, the group’s first-scene discussion is notable more for its ethnic posturing (Puerto Rican, Dominican, Jewish, African-American) than for a discussion of radical ideas.
Hoch’s personalities border on the cartoonish: the Jewish kid, Adam, owns a business; a Puerto Rican woman, Rebecca, is shrewish; a Puerto Rican man, Hector, is cocksure. Even if they come across one-dimensionally, the opening scene has vitality: Flaco Navaja, as Hector, has deft comic delivery, and Matthew-Lee Erlbach, as Adam, has a whirlwind entrance monologue that rivals that of John Malkovich 20 years ago in Burn This.
After the group arrives in Havana, the conversational energy wanes to make way for weightier matters. The gang meets an American political exile, whose bittersweet experiences in Cuba burn some of the dew off their ideological naivety.
The play is set in 2001: hip-hop, which by then had infiltrated pop culture all over the world, is still only seeping in to Cuban music and slang. Hoch draws humour from a local resident whose English is taken almost entirely from baseball terminology and rap lyrics.
Hoch has always been an adept at the excitement – and absurdity – of culture clashes: there is enough sharp-edged dialogue in the new play to supply a brilliant half-hour on a freewheeling TV network such as HBO. But storytelling is another matter. There is insufficient narrative conflict here to satisfy the demands of a full-length drama.