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And the Beat(box) Goes On ...

February 8, 2007 By:
M.J. Fine, JE Feature
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Yuri Lane ... a road less traveled
Behind the heartbreaking headlines and gory photos from the Middle East, there are people who are just trying to get by. Cafe owners and bike messengers, mothers and fathers; people shopping for groceries.

Yuri Lane feels them all. In a way, he embodies them all.

But as exhausting as that may sound, the 35-year-old actor and musician says he feels exhilarated when he walks off stage.

"I never get tired of doing it," Lane says of his one-man show, "From Tel Aviv to Ramallah," in which he represents cafe owner Khalid, bike messenger/DJ Amir, and more than a dozen of their friends, relatives and neighbors.

On the phone from Chicago, where he lives with wife Rachel Havrelock, a Jewish-studies professor at the University of Illinois, Lane discusses his passion for performance, peace and his hourlong program, which he'll perform at Philadelphia's Painted Bride Art Center this weekend.

"It's not about politics," he insists. "It's about daily life, and it's about being a human being, and it's about the dreams that Khalid and Amir both share, but how they're separated by this invisible green line."

The show's genesis is in trips that Lane and Havrelock took around Israel and the West Bank in 1998 and 2000. At the end of those long, hot days, Lane would rehash their experiences through beatbox and improvisation. He developed characters, and then Havrelock wrote dialogue and made it suitable for the stage.

His wife may be fluent in English, Hebrew and Arabic, but Lane prefers to communicate through vocal percussion.

"Beatbox is a language," he says. "It may not always be in English, but it's a language of elongated vowels and short consonant sounds."

'A Big Ham'
Lane discovered beatboxing when he was in middle school. It was more entertaining than algebra and, it turns out, a more valuable skill for him. In addition to using it to tell stories, he makes music (hear it at: www. yurilane.com), and teaches technique at after-school programs and synagogue workshops.

"People of all ages love the beatbox," he attests, "from a toddler that can only make sounds that sound very similar to beatbox to people in their golden years -- who recognize the art form and relate to it almost like it's vaudeville, and go back to the days when jazz was a lot about vocalizing and scatting, which is very similar to beatbox."

Soon after he got into beatboxing, Lane took to the stage and the screen. (You might recognize him from a recent commercial for the USA Network.)

"I started acting because I was just a super big ham," he says.

Lane's happy to make a living from what authority figures dismissed as "a party trick," but he says his wife's weightier work is a big part of what makes the show so resonant.

"She's a Bible scholar and in the English department, so she's a writer, but she definitely has a real grasp of what's going on in the Middle East, and also has a perspective of being an expert on Tanakh and then also knowing a lot about the Koran," he says.

"And I think bringing in multiple perspectives and multiple interpretations [is] a lot of what being Jewish is about, and what Jewish studies is a lot about."

For his part, Lane delved into multiple musical genres -- including Israeli and Palestinian hip-hop, as well as more traditional forms -- to inform his characters. Aside from the idealistic Khalid and Amir, he also portrays a hedonistic Israeli, a guy who has just embraced Orthodoxy, an America-loving Palestinian Christian and a Hamas recruit. Such a cultural brew might make violent confrontation seem inevitable, but Lane dreams of a world where it isn't.

He and San Francisco-based video artist Sharif Ezzat, who's in charge of the show's visual imagery, are spreading "From Tel Aviv to Ramallah" far and wide. They've taken it to the U.K. and Finland, and throughout the United States.

Lane says they do the show 25 to 30 times a year, and that the process is open-ended; for example, they've had to make a few changes to reflect the constantly evolving situation in the Middle East.

Ezzat is Lane's emcee as well as his traveling companion, and the two do most performances without Havrelock, who's busy teaching and working on a book about the Jordan River.

'A Real Positive Feeling'
"Sharif is an American-Egyptian Muslim and I'm an American Jew, and it's really a dialogue in performance," explains Lane. "And we've been doing the show [at] different college campuses and ... getting Arab and Jewish students together to sit and see the show, and it's created a lot of dialogue and I think has left a real positive feeling when people leave the show."

Though he's thrilled to find common ground in candid talks, the hip-hop enthusiast always brings the conversation back to his first love.

"Beatboxing really is about kind of exploring and playing with what you have," says Lane. "Because everyone has different lips, a different sense of rhythm.

"But in order to be a good beatboxer," he goes on "you have to have a good sense of rhythm, and have that sort of internal heartbeat." 

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