In 2000, solo performer Danny Hoch started the Hip-Hop Theater Festival. Hip-hop theater? Sounds dope! Is that two brothas in Kangol caps and gold chains remixing Measure for Measure, flowing like Suzan-Lori Parks, and rolling blunts with pages from Euripides? No such luck. Mostly it’s young, attractive, multi-culti actors doing formally conventional solo shows and plays about identity, politics, or a combination of the two, generally at an 80/20 ratio of theater to hip-hop aesthetics. This offers many pleasures, of course—the majority of them named Sarah Jones. Or Hoch himself, who has stepped behind the scenes to write and direct Till the Break of Dawn, a very funny but hokey play about a motley crew of activists who travel to a hip-hop festival in Cuba in September 2001.
Gibran, an earnest web entrepreneur, organizes the trip with his friends Robert and Hector, their girlfriends, and a rapper named Big Miff (the wonderfully deadpan Dominic Colon), all people of color. He also enlists financial assistance from Adam, a Jewish indie-label exec. Tensions arise over Adam’s suitability for revolution: “He ain’t struggling,” Hector hectors. The gang arrives in Cuba starry-eyed, clad in dryer-fresh Che T-shirts. Soon they encounter Dana, an expat still on the run from the U.S. government after 30-odd years. With Esther Rolle weariness, she teaches them to refine their idealistic impressions of class struggle: “It’s just work,” she implores. As this description suggests, the plot relies on sitcom hijinks, though Hoch has a keen ear for the paradox of social consciousness in an age of Starbucks’ soy lattes. The younger characters are surprisingly flat, the foreign ones cartoonish, and only Dana (compellingly played by Gwendolen Hardwick) has a nuanced emotional landscape, a past, or perspective. Still, Till the Break of Dawn boasts a crew of charming, energetic performers (though they sometimes push the envelope past exciting into annoying), and Hoch, as a director, has no inclination to slow them down. In the end, nothing significantly alters the idealism of this funky bunch: not breaking up, not selling out, not even the terrorist attack that spoils their denouement.