From Tel Aviv to Ramallah: A Beatbox Journey
Written and directed by Rachel Havrelock
Israel’s seaside city Tel Aviv is only about 37 miles from the Palestinian city of Ramallah in the West Bank, but, as with many distances in the Middle East, what separates the two places is more than a matter of geography. According to anecdotal reports, it takes about an hour to drive between the two cities, what with the crossing of contentious geopolitical borders and all. And that’s about how long it takes for Yuri Lane to take you to both of those places in his one-man performance From Tel Aviv to Ramallah: A Beatbox Journey, currently in production at Center Stage’s Head Theater.
Lane is consummate physical actor and a human beatbox, one of those vocally gifted humans who can mimic the sounds of everything from a helicopter to drums to prayer calls, and in Tel Aviv to Ramallah he offers an episodic glimpse into the lives of two common young men in both of these cities, examining their lives. If you’re thinking something along the lines of Krapp’s Last Tape meeting the Fat Boys, you’re not too far off.
What you might not expect, though, is just how breathlessly entertaining and thoughtful this performance is. As written and directed by Lane’s wife, University of Illinois at Chicago Jewish Studies professor Rachel Havrelock, Tel Aviv to Ramallah tells the story of Amir, a young Tel Aviv man who dreams of being a superstar DJ at hot clubs filled with hotter women every night, but he spends his days as a moped delivery driver. His Ramallah counterpart is Khalid, a young Palestinian who opened an internet café in hopes of helping Palestine enter a thriving global economy. Both young men are ebulliently eager to chase their dreams, both living the carefree lives of young people who feel they have their entire lives ahead of them. And Lane bounces between the two of them as if they’re two of the many people trapped inside his head.
Clad in nondescript pants, athletic shoes, a plain blue T-shirt, and a microphone headset, Lane brings Amir and Khalid—and their family, friends, and others they bump into—to life via small but subtle changes in vocal inflections and accents, as well as exaggerated gestures and facial expressions. His performance is almost pantomime, as the only props on the bare stage are a pair of chairs he infrequently uses and two bottles of water that he, almost miraculously, only reaches for twice. Everything else about the worlds he creates—from the traditional dancing of men in Tel Aviv’s streets to the kneeling prayers of men in Ramallah, from the propulsive beats Amir spins at a nightclub to the clickety-clack of Khalid’s fingers across a keyboard—Lane physically and sonically charms out of body and vocal chords. His performance is really some transfixing combination of adrenalized pantomime and the talking equivalent of a 15,000 meter sprint. By this performance’s end, you’re wondering how Lane is still standing, much less looking so chipper about it.
San Francisco-based video artist Sharif Ezzat helps Lane flesh out this stark stage with live video projections of still photography. Ezzat flashes a series of contextualizing imagery on screens behind Lane as Amri and Khalid move through their days, strobes of streets rushing by as Amir rides his moped around the city, turntables and dancers as he spins up in the club. All the imagery is rendered in black and white and slightly smeared, as if color photos loaded into a computer and then harshly grey-scaled such that all the soft edges become hard and all the hard edges becomes harsh. Their fragmentary, imprecise nature compliments Lane’s hopscotch narrative, the sound and visual parts snowballing to create a more nuanced, if still inchoate, whole.
You know from almost the first few moments that it’s all heading toward something untoward, if only because it’s the recent nature of war-torn fiction to begin in brightly drawn idylls and end in the harsh smoke of tragedy. But From Tel Aviv to Ramallah: A Beatbox Journey is less interested in dramatizing the collateral damage of cultural differences than it is in tapping into what these two places share—and not merely the doe-eyed dreams of two young men.
One of the performance’s recurring musical motifs is Lane jumping between singing “Tel Aviv” and “Ramallah” and “shalom” and “salaam” as if scratching between two records. And just as DJs match beats to move between breaks in two songs, Lane matches word roots and sounds to move between the two languages. “Shalom” and “salaam” aren’t just the Hebrew and Arabic words for “peace” that share beat-matched starting sibilant sounds, they come from the Semitic word root. It’s a bit of a subtle road to thematic cliché—the we-have-more-in-common-than-meets-the-eye cry for peace before mutual destruction—but much thanks to artists willing to let their audience find those commonalities out for itself.
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