Voices: Baba Israel

Feature in Issue 20-3 | Autumn 2008

From the Living Theatre to hip hop theatre, Baba Israel in his own words.

I grew up in New York’s The Living Theatre [often seen as the first modern, experimental theatre company]; a childhood of theatre, rehearsal spaces, and loft parties. At ten years old I was a member of a youth theatre company, run by Gypsy, a member of The Living Theatre.

We created anti-consumerism plays and I played ‘Ronald Raygun’ performing in public parks around New York City. The work was political and public.

The Living Theatre’s work marked essential developments in street theatre and collective creation.

The Living Theatre challenged society and called out its oppressive forces.

I continue in that tradition making music and theatre that addresses issues of race, militarisation, and media manipulation. My father Steve Ben Israel emerged as a solo performer bringing together comedy, jazz, and theatre. My mother Pamela Mayo Israel is a mask masker, theatre artist, and filmmaker.

My creative voice was encouraged.

As a performer my background is in the hip hop and spoken word renaissance of the 90s. Here my love of rhymes and beats came to life. I moved into the experimental performance scene of New York, performing improvisations in clubs, theatres, squats, and raves.

I collaborated with artists from diverse backgrounds including Balinese dance, jazz, electronic music, hip hop, Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed, Commedia dell’Arte.

I trained in Playback Theatre. In Playback I have found a community based improvisational theatre form that engages communities at the deepest level. We have worked with groups who have lost family members in 9/11; in schools dealing with racial conflicts; and with union movements. I am proud to be co-founder of Playback NYC with Paul McIsaac, the first Playback company based in New York City, and to integrate hip hop’s improvisational forms.

Enter Hip Hop Theatre, a recipe for my excitement and engagement in the theatrical tradition. Hip Hop Theatre expands hip hop’s storytelling, allowing for greater range of content, emotion, and dynamic outside of the hype of the club/party.

Theatre can embody human and political conflicts directly. Instead of a solo rap challenging racism, you can stage a battle between an oblivious white and militant black rapper, as we did in our Hip Hop Commedia piece What you say white boy? This intersection connects contemporary performance to the global language of hip hop. This creates current work that invites new audiences to the theatre. At the same time what is lost moving into the theatre? I see this tension as a vital place to examine process, venue, and form.

Process 08 is at the cutting edge of developing the form. Director Benji Reid’s genius is in creating a structure where process is emphasised, as opposed to product. In many developmental situations the pressure of creating finished work limits experimentation and true innovation. In the previous Process I was able to push myself and develop new training structures.

My focus will again mix Hip Hop skills such as freestyle, emceeing, and beatboxing with improvisational forms such as Playback Theatre. I am interested in challenging the expectations of these skills and pushing the possibilities of beatboxing and emceeing in relation to character, narrative, and ensemble work.

New York City is an international city and at the same time very insular. As an artist I have travelled and worked in Europe, Australia, and Asia. The mix of traditional cultural frameworks, contemporary movements, and the re-imagining and re-interpretation of American forms such as Hip Hop make for fertile collaboration.

I’m premiering my new solo piece Boom Bap Meditations in New York at the Hip Hop Theater Festival. In October 2008 Boom Bap Showtime! will tour to Contact Theatre in Manchester and The Albany in London. Presenting a double bill of my show and new work from Australian Hip Hop Theatre artist Morganics and Canadian dancer Jojo Zalina. This marks a truly international collaboration.

The Living Theatre was established in 1947 by Judith Malina and Julian Beck. Early works such as The Brig confronted the brutality of military prisons and The Connection explored the world of jazz. The Living Theatre left America and toured Europe throughout the 60s and 70s. Works such as Paradise Now moved from traditional theatrical forms to ritualistic and improvisational structures.

Process08 is a rich workshop festival, presented by Breaking Cycles and The Martin Harris Centre at The University of Manchester, and delivered by international masters of hip hop theatre, encouraging young artists to focus on the process of new theatre making, using a display of multi-disciplined artforms. Hosted by Benji Reid; featuring Will Power, Ty, Baba Israel, Walid, Kwikstep, and Rokafella. 4-16 August 2008. Includes the Hip Hop Film Festival. See www.breakingcycles.co.uk

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Issue 20-3
p. 14