November 10, 2005
Let's be real: I'm not exactly burning to see "J.O.B. The Hip-Hopera," which is, to be brief, a couple of Jewish guys "updating" the
Bible. As a 50-year-old white high school teacher, I'm well outside the hip-hop demographic. I can't dance, have increasingly little fashion sense, and can't pull off the permanent scowl required by the true hip-hoppers.
But here I am, in the packed and noisy Stella Adler Theatre in Hollywood, wondering if these two Jewish guys got some innate rhythm sense that I don't. And wondering if I can stand the embarrassing spectacle if it turns out that they don't.
The scene before me provides no reassurance: The stage is luridly lit, like the inside of a nightclub I haven't seen since the '80s, and the DJ scratching records -- as pre-show entertainment -- looks like the last guy I sent to the office for violating my school's dress code.
I surreptitiously examine the four black people in the audience, including my companion. Maybe I'm projecting, but they appear apprehensive, while also seeming cautiously open minded about a hip-hop show playing to an audience of predominantly whites and Asians. Mostly, this is a crowd of cheery spectators of hip-hop, not participants and, not uncharacteristically, I brace for the worst.
And then begins the story of Job. Make that "Joe Blow" in this version. And instead of the cranky but much put-upon biblical patriarch, we get the tale of a fallen executive of Hoover Records. The character of company president J. Hoover, whose name echoes Jehovah/Yahweh, is cleverly constructed. But the crotchety Hoover (reminiscent of a geriatric Gilbert Gottfried) is greedy, unloving and, overall, an ill-considered personification of the benevolent (we hope), if sometimes inscrutable, creator of the universe.
As I watch, I try to keep in mind the all-encompassing question: How does mankind reconcile the great theodisic problem of a planet created by an all-loving and omnipotent God who at best condones and at worst is the divine source of the suffering of putative innocents?
I guess I still don't know -- at least no more so than before -- even with the help of this parable of a spiritual crisis in corporate America.
But I also begin to realize that eternal philosophical implications are beside the point for the duo of Jerome Sable and Eli Batalion, who created and perform the show. They deliver a brilliant social satire about the nihilism and avariciousness of the American corporate beast, especially one that trivializes and commodifies a prominent aspect of modern black American culture. This sharp-eyed but good-natured show elevates and celebrates hip-hop as energetically as it critiques the exploitation that's become part and parcel of the genre.
Sable and Batalion are agile, engaging actor/comics who can switch roles and letter-perfect dialects in midsentence without missing a beat (so to speak). It seems like everybody is represented here -- blacks, whites, Jews, Middle Easterners, Southern rednecks, clueless office interns. And although the biblical allegory falls short, Sable and Batalion's script and book, like the Book of Job itself, is a dense but compelling blend of verse, poetry, prose and plenty of attitude to make it all fly -- I find myself leaning forward in my chair so as not to miss any words.
Though I'm a dance school dropout, I know superb dancing when I see it, and the corps members of the Hip-Hopera, notably Shawn Beck-Gifford, are both muscular and graceful -- they dance their tuchises off. They also do much to frame the whole show, literally and figuratively. And Donna Marquet's set of rolling metal hangers is spare but conceptually elastic -- working desks one moment, clanging prison bars the next. The meticulous staging by director Hassan Christopher, who also performs in the ensemble, is fluid throughout. All in all, an exhilarating evening that captures the best and brightest spirit of hip-hop -- well, not that I would know, but it sure seems that way.
But just to doublecheck my impressions, I turn to my companion for the evening, a woman who practically makes a living writing about black culture and has no patience with white and/or Jewish appropriations that pass for homage. When the lights come up she is smiling broadly and actually swaying to the lingering effects of the music. (Someday, I, too, will master this swaying thing.) She is, at least for the moment, as enthralled by the possibilities of hip-hop as me, as put forward by this show. Like me, she's started out a total Hip-Hopera skeptic and wound up a convert.
"That was fabulous!" she exclaims. "Smart, literate, crazy. And fun. It totally went for it. And the dancing was great. Those guys didn't pretend to be anything they weren't, but they did the job."
Indeed Batalion and Sable did do the job, if not quite the Job.
"J.O.B., the Hip-Hopera" plays through Nov. 27 at the Stella Adler Theatre, 6773 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. 8 p.m. (Fridays- Sundays) 3 p.m. (Sundays). $20-$30. For tickets, call (323) 960-4420.
Alan Kaplan teaches social studies at Hamilton High School and recently dropped out of tap dancing class.