Rapping in English

Hip-hop musical ‘The City’ brings an innovative style of theater to Jerusalem’s English speakers.

Hip-hop opera ‘The City,’ written entirely in rhyme and performed as one continuous song (photo credit: PETR KISKA)
Hip-hop opera ‘The City,’ written entirely in rhyme and performed as one continuous song
(photo credit: PETR KISKA)
As the lights dimmed across the smoky stage and a guitar started strumming, audience members – mostly the Anglo community of Jerusalem sprinkled with a few Israelis – looked on in anticipation as the hip-hop rap musical, The City unfolded at the Beit Mazia theater complex on February 14.
“Night. Storm. December 11. Screw it. I’ve been in the office all night because this how we do it. One last cigarette, glass of Bacardi, a happy birthday sign on the door. Hell of a party,” opened Amit Ulman, who plays the lead character, a detective named Joe. Ulman is part of the ensemble The Victor Jackson Show, which created The City under the wing of the Incubator Theater.
For most of the people attending The City, it was their first time attending a rap musical, also referred to as hip-hop opera, written entirely in rhyme and performed as one continuous song. For others, it was their first time watching a play in English in the nation’s capital. The City, which was sponsored by The Times of Israel, is opening a line of cultural events put on by the Incubator Theater, addressing the English-speaking audience in Israel.
In an interview with In Jerusalem, Arik Eshet, the manager of the Incubator Theater, said there were many English-speaking residents in the nation’s capital who had reached out to the Incubator requesting English-language performances.
“We already had a ready-made product with The City,” explained Eshet. “We have been performing The City around the world in English for the past couple of years."
“We feel there is a growing demand for English-language material by people who are looking to enjoy firstclass shows in English here in Jerusalem,” he added.
The City was originally written in Hebrew by Amit Ulman, Omer Havron and Omer Mor, and has been running on stage in Hebrew since its debut in 2012.
The three creators, who grew up together in Rehovot, are members of the Israeli hip-hop group The Victor Jackson Show and are pioneers of the hip-hop genre in Israel. The three have musical careers alongside their acting, with stage names like many rappers.
Eshet said that The City was the first rap opera in Israel and possibly the first in the entire world, as Hamilton, the hit Broadway hip-hop musical biography of Alexander Hamilton, was created by Lin-Manuel Miranda after the Israeli show.
The five-person cast of The City, which besides Havron, Mor and Ulman, consists of Dorit Lilien and Roni Rocket, dominated the stage on Wednesday night to a sold-out audience with the rapid-fire rapped dialogue and catchy musical arrangements that are faithful to street language. The show, which combines rap, hip hop, spoken word and beat box with theatrical and poetic texts, uses minimalistic instrumentation. A garbage can and chopsticks are used as percussion instruments, while a darbuka drum, classical guitar, and keyboard all contribute to the musical arrangements, which are directed by Mor.
“We make all the sound effects,” said Mor. “All we need is a keyboard, guitar and improvised drum set.”
Ulman, also known in Israel for his spoken-word creations in Hebrew under his stage name, Pedro Grass, told IJ that one of the most challenging aspects in translating The City from Hebrew into English was figuring the Israeli cultural references into a more universal language.
“For example, some of the jokes in Hebrew or quotes we used from Israeli songs did not work at all in English. We had to rework the Israeli material, using songs and references familiar to international audiences,” Ulman said. “Some things sound better in English, other lines less.”
“While it took a lot of work to translate the play from Hebrew into English, it was the natural thing to do – as the genre itself originates in America,” he said.
The City, which is strongly influenced by film noir, black music and detective films, tells the story of Joe, a cynical and bitter detective working in a corrupt, decaying city. One stormy night, a young woman named Sarah Bennett comes to Joe’s office and tells him about the mysterious disappearance of her sister. Joe decides to take on the case, which develops into a murder mystery.
Ulman said that he was always a fan of detective characters and film noir.
“There are many different types of detectives in this one character, Joe,” he said. “There is a lot to this character. It’s interesting to see how audiences both in Israel and around the world react to Joe and to the play in different ways.”
Before Jerusalem, the English version of The City reached audiences in Poland, Georgia, Russia, the Czech Republic, England and Scotland. While most of the international audiences were not native English speakers, Eshet said the play passed with flying colors in England, where the cast performed in Leeds and London.
“In different countries, some jokes were funnier to people than others; different scenes brought out different reactions,” said Ulman. “People like the fast-paced style of the play.”
However, in Scotland, the show ran into some obstacles, recalled Eshet, because of anti-Israel protesters.
“We had a situation with the BDS movement at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2014. BDS protesters caused a major disturbance that forced us to stop the show, picketing the hall we were scheduled to perform in” said Eshet. “We had 27 shows lined up in Scotland and all had to be canceled because the BDS protesters were out of control.”
“It was very disappointing but we are going to try and return to Scotland again,” said Eshet. “BDS won’t stop us.”
However, there is nothing like performing in Jerusalem, the hometown of the Incubator Theater’s director.
Eshet, who was born and raised in Jerusalem, has worked all his life to strengthen theater and the performing arts in the city. After completing his army service, Eshet told IJ that he had to study theater in Tel Aviv because there was nowhere to study theater in Jerusalem during his time.
“I established the Jerusalem branch of the Nissan Nativ Acting Studio more than 30 years ago as a vocational school for acting to train actors at a professional level,” said Eshet. Ulman himself is a graduate of the studio in Jerusalem.
“It is very important to me on a personal level that theater is alive and well in Jerusalem,” said Eshet, whose family has been living in Jerusalem for eight generations.
However, Eshet found that graduates of the Nissan Nativ Acting Studio ran into another problem upon graduating: finding employment.
“Often, our graduates moved to Tel Aviv, where they were able to find employment. That was why I founded the Incubator Theater over 10 years ago – to give actors and actresses a chance to develop in Jerusalem.”
Over the past decade, the Incubator, which began operating with the support of the Beracha Foundation, has put on more than 1,300 shows from 30 original productions and plays, including a television series on Channel 10.
Eshet left Nissan Nativ Acting Studio four years ago to devote his full time and attention to the Incubator Theater.
Another element that sets the The Incubator apart from Habima Theatre and the Cameri Theate in Tel Aviv, explained Eshet, is its focus on new and innovative materials. Plays like The City reflect The Incubator’s mission to showcase original and groundbreaking material that reflects current culture and trends. This past December, The Incubator also hosted the Annual Spoken Word Festival of Poetry Slam Israel, featuring poetry slam champions from Belgium, Japan, Italy, Denmark, Russia and Canada.
“We want to create a new generation of performance artists in Jerusalem,” said Eshet. “And we want to make our material accessible to audiences who don’t speak Hebrew. That is why we are thrilled to fulfill the need for theater in English here in Jerusalem.”
For members of the audience on February 14, The City seemed to have done the trick.
“It’s the first time I’ve seen a play in English in Jerusalem,” said Jeff Moskowitz, originally from Philadelphia.
“It was a great show. I really enjoyed it.”
Others, like Mikki Shana from England, said that the show exceeded her expectations. “It was really funny in a clever way,” she commented with a smile. “The acting and rapping were excellent.”
“Depending on the demand, we would like to run The City several more times in English on a monthly basis,” concluded Eshet.
The next showing of The City in English will be on March 20 at Beit Mazia, 18 Mesilat Yesharim Street.