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January 17, 2007

Dan Hoyle is everyone he met in Nigeria, but not himself — and that's impressive.

Solo shows fall into three basic categories: the autobiographical (in which the performer tells his own story), the biographical (in which the performer portrays another person — usually someone famous), and what I'll call the multi-biographical (in which the performer inhabits many different personas that have nothing to do with his own life). But whether we're watching Billy Crystal reminiscing about his golden childhood, Tovah Feldshuh embodying Israeli premier Golda Meir, or Ron Campbell morphing into 37 different characters from Nazi officers to Ali Baba's Forty Thieves, one thing always remains intact: the actor's ego. Even when a solo performer successfully hides his identity behind countless other masks, the sheer virtuosity of the endeavor — the "Wow, I can't believe that guy played every member of the Trojan army, including the horse!" factor — reminds us that we're watching a brilliant individual on stage.

Every now and again, though, someone comes along and breaks the rules. Based on Dan Hoyle's experiences as a Fulbright scholar studying oil politics in Nigeria over 10 months in 2005Ð2006, Tings Dey Happen should, according to my formula, fall into the autobiographical slot. On his journey backward and forward between Nigeria's oil capital, Port Harcourt, and the lawless hinterlands of the Niger Delta (whose abundantly flowing pipelines make the country America's fifth biggest oil supplier), Hoyle tries to understand the complex forces behind the oil-rich region's escalating cycle of corruption and violence — the result of oil companies' ill-conceived community compensation plans, governmental disorder, and who knows what else. Hoyle is the protagonist in an essentially autobiographical work; his name crops up throughout. Some moments (such as when Graham Greene and Richard Pryor appear to Hoyle in a surreal, malaria-induced dream) are as intimate as anything you'd find in a vintage Woody Allen skit. Yet, weirdly, Dan Hoyle — the main character in his own story — never appears.

What we get instead is a series of short episodes in which people Hoyle met in Nigeria tell their stories. Hoyle himself is the silent interlocutor, whose questions about such matters as government intervention elicit a range of responses. If hearing the characters repeat back to us their invisible interviewer's queries becomes pedantic, Hoyle more than makes up for it with his savage-sweet portrait of Nigerian life. With acute attention to physical and verbal detail (some of the characters even speak an undulating, indecipherable pidgin), Hoyle embodies a soft-spoken, 23-year-old rebel sniper whose chief desire is to obtain a university degree; a warlord armed with four cellphones and a family photo album, like Marlon Brando in The Godfather; and a nerdy Japanese member of the Young Diplomats Club in Lagos working on a thesis about the Tanzanian cashew nut, among numerous others.

Like Anna Deavere Smith — one of the most famous practitioners of this type of show — Hoyle takes a journalistic approach: He interviews dozens of locals and expats (from disenfranchised guerrilla fighters and prostitutes to the U.S. ambassador and employees of Chevron, Shell, and Exxon) to create a nearly 360-degree view of the situation in Nigeria and peoples' attitudes about the country. But unlike Smith, whose slavish impersonation of the speech nuances of her interviewees seems more stenography than artistry, Hoyle filters his experience through his vivid imagination, creating full-blooded characters that are as theatrical as they are real.

Caught between objective reportage and subjective art, the solo performer's ego blurs. That Hoyle's portrayals of Africans are (predictably) more sympathetic than those of the Caucasians (the most condemnatory, heart-wrenching line of the entire play — "The whites. You don't even fuck us anymore" — belongs to a Nigerian prostitute) makes him stand out from his subject matter. Yet Hoyle's role as a mouthpiece for many different points of view diffuses his presence.

By drilling deep beneath the surface of media hype and NGO cant, Hoyle tells a story that is simultaneously his own and that of many others. If there's any conclusion to be drawn from Tings Dey Happen, it's that isolating the cause of corruption and violence in a country as corrupt and violent as Nigeria is a near-impossible task. The mercurial evasiveness of this solo performer's ego beautifully underscores his point.



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