As a teenager growing up in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury, Yuri Lane spent every Saturday night with his radio on, listening to the sounds of early hip-hop on a small, local FM station. Captivated by the simple drumbeats and rhythms, he started teaching himself to replicate the sounds with his vocal chords.
Sometimes his beatboxing would get him in trouble, like when he would do it to get a laugh out of his friends in math class. And sometimes, like when he found himself in a rough neighborhood, it would help him avoid getting beaten up.
Roughly 25 years later, Lane, 42, is doing more than beatboxing to tell stories — he’s using it to bring people together.
“From Tel Aviv to Ramallah: A Beatbox Journey,” the performer’s one-man “hip-hop play,” immerses audience members in a routine day as seen through the eyes of a young Israeli DJ and a Palestinian Internet café owner. The play brings to life the bustling youth culture in those two cities through the street noise, voices and music of the Middle East, until the young men’s lives finally intersect at a West Bank checkpoint.
The show — which uses a surprising amount of humor considering its subject matter — was predominantly penned by Lane’s wife, Rachel Havrelock, a professor of Jewish studies at the University of Chicago who has written extensively on Israeli-Palestinian border issues. The performance is paired with visual imagery by the couple’s friend Sharif Ezzat, a San Francisco–based Muslim American photographer and multimedia artist.
Lane will perform the play at the Osher Marin JCC on Nov. 19, as part of the JCC’s interfaith dialogue series “Salaam, Shalom: Speaking of Peace.” It’s the show’s debut in the Bay Area, though the beatboxer has toured with it for the better part of the last decade, with shows in New York, Los Angeles and other U.S. cities, plus the Netherlands and Israel.
“This show is about daily life,” Lane says. “It does bring up politics because this is the Middle East, but it’s more about trying to humanize the situation — to get rid of images of Israeli soldiers and Palestinians throwing rocks, which are what Americans tend to see the most.”
The narrative was inspired by Lane and Havrelock’s travels in the region in 1999, when Havrelock was living there and her studies required her to go back and forth between Ramallah and Tel Aviv with some regularity. After visiting friends on both sides of the Green Line, the couple began discussing the fact that, though the two cities are barely an hour apart by car, most people who live in either place never see what life is like in the other.
“I’m not a politician. I’m a performer. But I believe in peace, and I think this show can provide a new perspective, start new conversations among people who might not have thought they were open to them,” Lane says of the play. “I know it can, because I’ve seen it happen.”
Born in Holland, Lane moved to San Francisco as a small child when his parents — a painter and a violinist — decided to join the counter-culture movement that was happening here in the ’70s.
“Growing up in the Bay Area, I think I learned a lot about tolerance really naturally. You’re exposed to so many different kinds of people in San Francisco, it just becomes a part of your life,” Lane says.
He started acting with San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater and the Berkeley Repertory Theatre at age 13, then attended the San Francisco School of the Arts for high school, where his love of performance and hip-hop coalesced into an early version of the beatbox theatrics he still does today.
“Soundtrack City,” his first one-man beatbox musical, was an ode to the city he still loves. Becoming different characters as he explored San Francisco’s neighborhoods on stage, Lane realized how much he loved telling others’ stories and crafting narrative through sound and spoken word. He’s been supporting himself doing just that since 2000, with brief forays into professional acting. He’s best known for the “beatbox harmonica,” in which he plays the harmonica while beatboxing. Videos of him performing while walking the streets of Chicago and New York have thousands of fans online.
Rachel Havrelock is a Detroit native who first came to the Bay Area as an undergraduate at U.C. Santa Cruz. After graduation she moved to San Francisco and worked as a Jewish educator at Congregation Beth Sholom. She and Lane met through friends at a Giants game — right before she was scheduled to leave for the Middle East as part of her Ph.D. program in Jewish studies at U.C. Berkeley.
As a student studying language and history at both Tel Aviv University and Birzeit University, near Ramallah, from 1999 through 2001, Havrelock traveled back and forth over the border countless times.
“I had friends and fellow students in Tel Aviv and Ramallah, and they would always ask me, ‘What’s going on over there?’ ” she recalls. “There was such geographic proximity, but such huge cultural differences, and with the luxury of an American passport I quickly became part of the student culture in both places. I knew I wanted to tell that story in some way, but I didn’t find my medium until Yuri came out to visit me.”
Traveling together, the couple naturally had conversations about their observations, from which the narrative started emerging. “He’s an actor, and he kind of naturally absorbs all these sights and sounds in his body, so at the end of every day he would play back to me where we had been, impressions of people we had met,” Havrelock says. “And that’s when it dawned on me that the way to tell these stories to a larger audience was to render them for Yuri to perform. He becomes other people so easily.”
Back in the U.S., Havrelock wrote the play over the course of the same year in which she was writing her dissertation — a piece that would become her 2011 book “River Jordan: The Mythology of a Dividing Line.”
“Making art out of [the same observations as my dissertation] was actually a relief while I was writing,” Havrelock says. “Obviously it’s a controversial topic, but the whole point of the play is to focus on daily life, to give the audience that experience so few people have, to transport them back and forth across a border that in real life is really difficult to traverse.”
In 2002, while putting the finishing touches on the writing, the couple became friends with Ezzat, a London-born, San Francisco–based multimedia artist whose parents are originally from Egypt. Ezzat was inspired by the idea of contributing a visual element to Lane’s performance. His images — which are predominantly black-and-white, in order to lend what Ezzat calls a “journalistic quality” to the play — further divide the stage between the Israeli side and the Palestinian side, reinforcing the border that defines so much of the performance.
In live performances, Ezzat controls the rhythm and pace at which the visuals change, so they can be timed with Lane’s vocals; the video artist even designed software that allows for input information from the beatboxer’s microphone to trigger visual changes as well.
Ezzat found that images of faces drew tension away from Lane, so he instead uses visuals that help bring characters to life — such as pieces of clothing or a scene of that character’s home.
Overall, the effect is one that immerses the audience completely, but it’s one of those things that you need to experience in person; Ezzat says attempts to capture the performance on video have been disappointing.
“There’s nothing like a live theater experience, especially when you start experimenting with technology,” he says. “Over the years that we’ve done the show, we’ve performed for audiences of primarily Israelis and Palestinians, and there are references that only people who have been to those places can get. And I think that helps bring this dialogue down to a human level, as well.”
In 2003, Lane and Havrelock moved to Chicago; the same year, “From Tel Aviv to Ramallah” debuted as a short at New York’s Hip-Hop Theater Festival. After its full-length premiere in Washington, D.C., it earned a Helen Hayes Awards nomination for best new play of 2003-04. And while living in Tel Aviv for three months, Lane recently had the opportunity to perform the play for a primarily Israeli audience at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheva.
“That was a hugely interesting experience,” Lane says. “I had people saying, you know, ‘You really got it. Usually when Americans portray the conflict or life in Israel or the West Bank, they have their own agenda.’ And that’s just not what this show is about.”
Following performances, Lane has had engaging conversations with 12-year-olds and 80-year-old audience members alike. Shows have been hosted by Hillel groups and Muslim student associations. Even when he’s performed the play for audiences with no knowledge of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Lane says he’s seen the narrative hit home.
“I did the show at a junior college in Cleveland once, for a primarily African American audience that had no ties to the Middle East at all,” recalls Lane. “But they understood borders. They understand the concept of, you go into a certain neighborhood and you’re pulled over or hassled just for the way you look.”
The show’s natural tendency to spur conversation is precisely what made it such a perfect choice for the JCC’s “Salaam, Shalom” series, says Joanne Greene, director of the JCC’s Center for Jewish Peoplehood. The series, now in its third year, is aimed at increasing dialogue and understanding among different faith groups in Marin; this show is co-sponsored by a broad swath of local Christian churches, Muslim groups and synagogues in addition to groups such as the Jewish Community Relations Council. The event, like all programming in the series, is free and open to the public — all the better to encourage people from usually disparate communities to show up and see what it’s all about.
“I think there are ways theater can speak to people, ways art can get across a message that’s really difficult to get across in other mediums,” Greene says of her decision to reach out to Lane after Havrelock spoke at the Marin JCC last year as a visiting scholar. “There’s something very open about what he does. I believe strongly that fear leads to hatred, and ignorance leads to fear, so part of the goal is to give people an opportunity to just have these conversations out in the open.”
“From Tel Aviv to Ramallah: A Beatbox Journey,” 7 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 19 at the Osher Marin JCC, 200 N. San Pedro Road, San Rafael. Free. Preferred seating with RSVP. firstname.lastname@example.org. www.marinjcc.org or (415) 444-8000
on the cover
Performance artist Yuri Lane