a man in a black t-shirt with a shocked expression on his face
Day Hoyle in one-man play "Border People" directed and co-developed by Charlie Varon

Human stories of immigration in one-man show in S.F.

A woman forced to flee Iraq after teaching American literature there. A gay, pagan, survivalist goat rancher along the U.S. border with Mexico. A Palestinian who left Saudi Arabia because he was seen as not religious enough, then leaves rural California because of Islamophobia.

They are among the 11 characters Dan Hoyle portrays in his one-man show “Border People,” which makes its world premiere on Friday, Jan. 11 at the Marsh in San Francisco. The show, co-developed and directed by Charlie Varon, is all about crossing borders — geographical and cultural. It is scheduled for 19 performances, Thursdays through Saturdays through Feb. 23.

Varon has done several one-man shows at the Marsh, where he is an artist-in-residence, and also has collaborated with Hoyle on four shows. As a Jew with both Ashkenazi and Sephardic roots, he said the show resonates for him — especially at a time when immigration is such a hot-button issue.

“I think about my own border-crossing ancestors,” Varon said. “We who have this history, who know how fickle history can be, know how decisions made by some government or some authorities can have ramifications that are unforeseen and can make the difference between life and death.”

Though the show is about immigration, it’s not about statistics or politics. It’s an intimate look at human beings who cross borders, and not just international ones. Among the 11 characters is a guy who grew up in a white suburb in New Jersey and now lives among fellow people of color in the South Bronx.

Hoyle used to live in the Bronx, and he has spent time at the U.S. borders (both north and south) and in Mexico getting to know immigrants, ranchers and border patrol officers. He calls what he does “journalistic theater,” performances that are sculpted after getting people to open up to him about their journeys, their struggles and their hopes.

The show is about talking to refugees, who are as American as anyone you’re ever going to meet.

Hoyle, who grew up in San Francisco and now lives in Oakland after stops in places such as Nigeria and Spain, said he began work on the show the morning after President Donald Trump was elected in 2016. Though he said the current administration’s immigration policies serve as a backdrop, he insisted “Border People” is not an anti-Trump polemic.

“The context of this show is that there is a president who I think is racist, but I don’t ever say that in the show,” Hoyle said. “A lot of the show is a response to this tribalism in our politics and in our culture.

“This show is a response to what’s happening now, and a large part of that is Trump and this movement to define American identity in a very specific way. The show is about talking to refugees, who are as American as anyone you’re ever going to meet. They don’t take their citizenship for granted.”

Varon said the show is about getting inside the hearts and minds of the 11 characters — all of whom are based on real people, or in some cases composites of people — and understanding the texture of their lives. He’s done similar work in his solo shows at the Marsh, including “Rabbi Sam,” in which he played 12 characters, many of them board members of a fictitious California synagogue, and “Back in the World,” in which he served audience members borscht while portraying residents of a Jewish retirement community.

“I think what’s happened, particularly since the 2016 campaign, is that on the issues of borders and immigration, the discourse has become so extreme, so shrill, so weaponized, that even those of us that try to take a more nuanced view are kind of caught inside that mode of discourse,” Varon said.

“It’s been a tonic working on this show as a relief from the Trump era madness we’re all living through,” he added. “It’s a reminder to me that those who cross borders have full, rich, complicated lives with ups and downs and longings and complexity.”

Border People. Jan. 11 to Feb. 23, the Marsh, 1062 Valencia St., S.F. $25-$100. themarsh.org

Rob Gloster

Rob Gloster z"l was J.'s senior writer from 2016-2019.