Yuri Lane, human beatbox, traveled to the Middle East twice in the late 90s, but it didn’t occur to him to use the experiences as material until last year. After performing an excerpt from his 2002 show, Soundtrack City, at a Jewish theater conference, the artistic director of D.C.’s Theater J urged him to develop the final scene, where a character gets a phone call from a cousin in Israel telling him there’s been a suicide attack, into a show of its own. From Tel Aviv to Ramallah: A Beatbox Journey–written and directed by Lane’s wife, Rachel Havrelock, a professor of Jewish studies at UIC–debuted at Theater J in November 2003 and earned a Helen Hayes Award (the D.C. equivalent of a Jeff) nomination for outstanding new play. Lane’s been on the road with it ever since.

The hour-long piece tackles the Middle East conflict through the stories of two men living parallel lives in Israel and the occupied territories. Before live video projections by Sharif Ezzat, an Egyptian Muslim, Lane, who’s Jewish, depicts the day-to-day struggles of Khalid, an Internet cafe owner, and Amir, a DJ. Though Lane uses hip-hop and humor, he doesn’t pander to the audience with a happy ending. “The show leads you to make your own decisions about what happens,” he says, “but it’s full of comedy and fun and terror and inspiration and what embodies the Middle East and Tel Aviv and Ramallah–that it’s full of passionate people and full of lots of problems.”

Lane started acting professionally at the age of 12–his bio claims he was once this close to being cast as Doogie Howser–around the same time he began beatboxing. The son of a classical violinist and a jazz fan, he grew up in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco surrounded by “bums and break-dancers and punk rockers.” In middle school he would mimic acts he heard on the radio, like Run-DMC. Later, he says, “I had this epiphany when I was in math class. ‘Cause I sucked at math, I started”–and here he demonstrates by beatboxing–“and the teacher was like, ‘Turn that radio off!'”

Throughout high school and college Lane acted in commercials, plays, and musicals, and as his career progressed he learned speech techniques and diaphragm control. He says he discovered his true calling after college, rehearsing for a musical called Beatbox: A Raparetta. “I just all of a sudden started moving”–he beatboxes again–“started doing mime and movement, and boom! This lightbulb went off.”

Onstage Lane’s energy is relentless. He plays the parts of Amir, Khalid, their friends, girlfriends, and families, people talking on cell phones, and customers haggling with vendors, while also evoking video games, graffiti writing, dance clubs, and the hustle and bustle of the marketplace. He sings, beatboxes, and break-dances simultaneously, touching on everything from traditional Hebrew songs to techno and hip-hop. But the piece is more than just a showcase for his skills–it’s also an effort to tell both sides of the story. “All throughout the country, I’ve gotten good responses from both communities, that the show was balanced,” Lane says. “Of course you can’t please everybody. The Palestinians want more signs of repression, the Israelis want more signs of how hard it is to live under the threat of suicide bombers. I try not to get into the politics, because I’m not a politician. I’m an actor, or a beatboxer, that has this interpretation of what I experienced.”

Lane performs From Tel Aviv to Ramallah (minus Ezzat’s projections) Saturday and Sunday, September 11 and 12, at 9 PM at the Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division, as part of the Around the Coyote Fall Arts Festival. Tickets are $7, which covers admission to all plays scheduled that day. Call 773-342-6777 or see the festival guide in Section Two for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.