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The Creator of “The Real Americans” Reports on His Travels to India

In 2010, actor, journalist, and playwright, Dan Hoyle, presented his hit play, The Real Americans, at the First Person Festival of Memoir and Documentary Art after a nine-month sold-out run in San Francisco. For the production, Hoyle traveled United States by van and interviewed the people he met along the way including an anti-war gun salesman, Reagan-ite coal miners, liberal rednecks, and yuppie hipsters. He brings all these characters to life with humor, honesty, and extraordinary versatility, opening our eyes to what makes up our “real America” in the play. The Real Americans has been critically acclaimed by The New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer and a number of other newspapers. Check out the trailer for the show at the bottom of the page!

First Person Arts has commissioned Hoyle to develop a brand new piece about all aspects of the news. The News has been supported by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage through the Philadelphia Theatre Initiative. Hoyle says, “In my play, I want to ask: How do we embrace the tremendous possibilities of digital media while keeping high-quality journalism sustainable, rigorous, and widely read?” Currently, Hoyle is doing research and conducting interviews on the state of journalism in India– a country where print news is thriving despite a world-wide trend of digitally-based news reporting. Click here for more information about the commission. Below is a letter Hoyle sent to First Person Arts, describing his experiences in India so far.

Kolkata/Calcutta, May 11, 2012

I’m not gonna lie, it’s not always a joyful revving of the rusty field research engines. Not when the gentle rhythms of free hulu streaming and the baseball box score stand as reliable centurions at the gates of sedated luxury. Not when you know what awaits you at the end of the long flight. The smart-looking “research shirt” that is soaked through after ten minutes outside each morning. The endless honking horns. The familiar greeting of “hey my friend, America! I like British, you need McDonalds/coldbeer?”

First always there is the haze, the lack of perception, the clogging of the antenna by this endless fractal matter as you hurtle through the streets. But since I am stationed in a neighborhood in south Kolkata, away from the touts of Sudder street, Kolkata’s backpacker hovel, and am lucky enough to stay with a generous and warm family of friends, the adjustment period was brief. Yes I had the first day hungry/thirsty/jet-lagged/
guilt-ridden/unavoidable tout interaction made worse by the fact that I was just wandering around and could not lose him no matter that the first fifteen things I said to him were: “No, I’m fine, no. I’m Ok. No. No thanks. No. No. No. I don’t need help. No. No. NO. NO.” And between those familiar plaintive pleas–“my brother, just one roll, brother, last night I just take tea only, brother”–he began telling me his story of his father getting laid off from a plastics factory in Varanasi, so he fled to Kolkata only to sleep on the pavement.

But on day three, I was at the football match, where the homeside thrilled the crowd with a sloppy but satisfying 2-0 victory, and mourned the moving on of beloved Brazilian hire Jose Barreto. The next day, at the Jadavpur coffeehouse, three committed intellectuals allowed me to join them in a nightly gathering they have to discuss art, politics, and humanism. This is the “adda,” the Bengali tradition of debating ideas as sport, where Calcutta’s legacy as the capital of united India lives on as more than just faded Victorian buildings. The Bengali gift of gab, the suspicion of capitalism, the unpretentious lust for ideas manifests itself most directly here. “Read all night, talk all day,” says a plump failed filmmaker (and aren’t we all failed filmmakers? Here, it’s ok, even honored).

I sit next to an old man named Dhruba whose grandfather directed the play Sita on Broadway in 1931 (you can look it up). When asked about his age, he quotes Tagore, the Bengali nobel laureate who is revered as a God here: “age is the red clay on the bank of the river.” (On Tagore’s birthday this week, people made small shrines, burned devotions, and played Rabindra Sangeet songs throughout the city–can you imagine Whitman being celebrated thus?)

Depankar, wild-haired, wide-eyed, face griped by the urgency of centuries of ideas, gives a riveting discourse on the decision to embrace nostalgia over consumerism, the preservation of oppressed Indian cultural practices by a small band of European intellectuals in in the 1800s, and his dual devotion to being a Brahmin intellectual priest and a Western rationalist who rejects the inhumanity of the caste system. As I say goodbye, he looks me straight in the eyes at close range and, face frozen in intellectual ecstasy, shouts over the din of the packed coffeehouse, “I am Depankar. It means: searching for light!”

And in north Kolkata yesterday, close to college street, where only bookshops stretch for a mile, I bought chai from a 72 year old man who had three sons who had died of diseases, a fourth son who had been missing for twenty-three years, two daughters who had married, and a middle daughter who had also died. He said he was not well, he had problems with his knees, and he was partially blind. He tended his woodstump fire, inhaling smoke all the while, selling espresso-size cups of sweet, milky tea as is the fashion here. His life seemed a tragedy, but when I thanked him for the interview, he turned and gave a smile of deepest grace and tenderness, hands raised and twisting. At risk of dragging another soggy Western yoga mat sensibility into an infinitely complex country, I can only describe that it felt like his soul leaped out from his body and thumped my chest. I reeled back two steps in shock, and thanked him again. His body curled up further and his smile widened and sweetened even more.

You cannot live alone with your problems in Kolkata. And you cannot forget how big the world is–it is in front of you everyday, and it’s intricacies are infinite. Take the famous Indian head nod. It is a gesture that means: no problem, you’re welcome, thank you, of course, my pleasure, you’re right and many other things. But everyone has a different rhythm, intensity, and angle, as original and organic a self-expression as vocal tone in West Africa.

Suffice it to say that every evening, sitting cramped in a tea stall, slowly drenching my shirt in the muggy heat yet again, with horns blaring constantly, I am reconnected with past forays in Vietnam, Alabama, Nigeria. And I feel completely at home, in awe of a world that is always streaming for free.

Trailer for The Real Americans

-Ariel Rose Plotnick, FPA Marketing Intern

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