Don't box Yuri Lane in

The Baltimore Sun

Yuri Lane takes a little CNN and sprinkles it generously with some MTV in From Tel Aviv to Ramallah: A Beatbox Journey, a one-man hip-hop show about the Middle East conflict that opens today at Center Stage.

"It can be hard to find the perfect adjective to describe something," Lane said. "Sometimes, you can express things better with music and sound than with words."

The self-titled "hip-hop Jew," who has several television, film and theater credits to his name, uses beatbox, mime, song and dance to tell the story of two towns and two young men striving for normality amid the surrounding strife of the conflict.

Lane -- who found YouTube fame by beatboxing and playing the harmonica simultaneously -- prefaces the show, which consists of roughly 60 percent beatboxing, by telling the audience, "All of the sounds you are about to hear come from Yuri's lips, teeth, nose and throat."

Some critics have questioned the honesty of the statement. Lane takes the accusations as compliments.

The show's plot revolves around Khalid, the owner of a thriving Internet cafe in the Palestinian city of Ramallah, and Amir, a Tel Aviv messenger-on-moped who also works as a DJ. They belong to different cultures and live separate lives on opposite sides of the "green line," an invisible barrier with checkpoints that divides their two cities. Yet, they share much in common. They both have great ambitions -- Khalid wants to be a big-time businessman, and Amir aspires to be a superstar DJ -- shy away from politics, have similar friends, share similar family problems, are the same age and are simply trying to enjoy their lives.

"In another place, maybe they would've collaborated together and been friends," said Lane. "But, no matter how hard they try, they can't help being affected by the events around them."

Through his "vocal gymnastics," the beatboxer attempts to convey life in both cities realistically and vividly with an innovative format. Lane creates the soundtrack for people, events and even places.

"I use beatbox to grab the audience's attention. But I want them to eventually stop focusing on the sounds and get lost in the story and the characters," he said.

Lane tries to accurately depict the thriving, colorful sides of both cities, to counter the media's focus on their unpleasant, bloody aspects. Characters have leisurely chats, dance in nightclubs, stroll the marketplaces and peruse newspapers at a cafe.

"In the news, we tend to see violence, not the Tel Aviv and Ramallah that are filled with talented people and culture," he said.

He uses no props in the show, except for a couple of chairs and a few bottles of water. But visual projections, coordinated with his partner, Sharif Ezzat, who sits with a computer in a booth on stage, appear on a screen behind Lane to complement certain scenes. Still photos and flash-technology images of backgrounds and people periodically appear. Ezzat has to be very precise because he has to match images with their beatbox auditory cues live.

Though the story takes place in the Middle East, the actor doesn't want people to assume that the work must be mostly heavy and serious. He describes it as comedic and fun, though he admits the piece occasionally touches upon grave subjects and contains one very dramatic scene; at this point, a major event causes the two men's paths to converge, and the tale takes a sharp turn.

Lane and his wife, Rachel Haverlock, a professor of Jewish studies and writer and director of the play, developed the show's concept after traveling through the Middle East. During a five-day tour from Tel Aviv to Ramallah in 2000, he would replay each day's events to his wife via beatboxing. They soon realized that they could expand the act into a compelling live show.

Lane hopes his performance leads audiences to fully grasp his message of peace and understanding.

"Hip-hop is a language that folks can understand all over the world," he said. "Hopefully, people leave the show with a new perspective on a problem that is very difficult to solve."

jennifer.choi@baltsun.com

Performances run today-March 29 at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St. Dates and times vary. Call 410-332-0033 or go to centerstage.org.

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