Not long after graduating from Northwestern University, in 2003, the American Dan Hoyle went to Nigeria to study the oil business, and he returned home to fashion Tings Dey Happen.
This 90-minute solo show, now off-Broadway, gives us the tribal warlords, bush fighters, oilmen, politicians, and expats who are the players in the resource-rich Niger Delta, a region that provides the US with 10 per cent of its oil but which is less familiar to most westerners than the moon.
Hoyle’s journalistic method melds stand-up comedy with storytelling. Unlike more conventional reporters whose editors may excise remarks that may ruffle racial or political sympathies, Hoyle glories in the oh-so-slightly controversial remark.
He is recreating real human voices, after all, and most people, with the exception of politicians and the professionally pious, tend to have opinions in private that, if broadcast, can strike public sparks.
Hoyle’s fearlessness begins with his title. He is white, and when characterisation demands it he speaks in a Nigerian version of pidgin English. For that choice he has been criticised, not so much for racial insensitivity but for daring to use inflections that may require white American theatre reviewers to lean forward to understand.
Hoyle kicks off the performance with a “stage manager” named Sylvanus, a militant who is at war with the Royal Dutch Shell oil company. Such big corporations, he rages, run the Niger Delta, buoyed by corrupt government officials and threatened by the kidnapping of employees.
Tings ain’t agitprop, however. As Hoyle develops his characters, some of whom are composites, it becomes clear that one might prefer to lift a pint with an oil-company type than with one of the impoverished, justifiably enraged locals.
A bar scene where a gregarious Scotsman hooks up “Dan the student man” with the oil-concerned foreigners is highly amusing, featuring such dialogue as, “I’m Shell, there’s Chevron, Halliburton over there, Exxon’s takin’ a piss”.
Sometimes, Hoyle’s approach is too obvious: a tea-loving US ambassador is one-dimensional. It’s true that ruthlessness has nothing to do with one’s preferred beverage, and that political partisanship around the world might diminish if ideological enemies could learn how to have a drink together, but dramaturgical points are sometimes better left implied than explicit.
Still, Hoyle is a skilled mimic, with a natural talent for rankling conventional wisdom.
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