MC Cain and MC Abel, unlike their biblical namesakes, get along famously.
The young MCs, aka Jerome Saibil and Eli Batalion, have a two-man show, “Job: The Hip-Hop Musical,” which makes its New York premiere March 30 at the Here Arts Center, after becoming a favorite of the Saint-Ambroise Montreal Fringe Festival and touring Canada to rave reviews and many awards.
Both only 22, Saibil and Batalion are already alternative-theater veterans with their own company, F-qué dans la Tête Productions (the literal translation is unprintable). On top of that, they are childhood friends and former classmates, first at Montreal’s famed Bialik Jewish School and then at Brown University. When they sat down to tell the Forward exactly how their mixed-marriage, Torah-meets-rap baby came into being, they showed off the sharp wit that has made “Job” such a hit.
Looking at the list of awards the play has racked up, including best new play from the Montreal English Critics Circle and the Toronto Star’s top-10 list, it’s hard to imagine that the whole thing was written in one feverish burst of creativity with the two recent graduates holed up at Saibil’s Montreal home.
“We had just finished college at the end of May,” Batalion said. “We had everything laid out, but we hadn’t written anything yet, and we had planned to do something for the Montreal Fringe Festival. Then we got on the cover of Montreal’s equivalent of the Village Voice and were like, well, we can’t cancel now. We had to write it, memorize it and write the music in 14 days.”
A biblical hip-hop musical isn’t an obviously winning formula — it sounds more like a Mel Brooksian “Springtime for Hitler”-style spoof. “We thought it might bomb,” Saibil said. “We thought that hip-hop fans wouldn’t like it because of the Bible, and biblical fans would be turned off because it’s updated to the modern day, and theater fans would not be into the hip-hop.” Batalion deadpanned, “And antisemites would be turned off because we’re Jewish, and Jews would be turned off because we’re not Jewish enough.”
But somehow, according to many gushing reviewers, the show works. MCs Cain and Abel narrate the updated story of Job Low (all puns intended), an executive at a hip-hop record label whose boss, J. Hoover, and vice president of finance, Lou Saphire, decide to test his loyalty by taking away his perks. Saibil and Batalion, in tracksuits and head-kerchiefs, play all the parts.
Maybe the unlikely combination holds together because the partners have solid experience in all three elements: They first studied the Book of Job in its original Hebrew while in high school; they have written and toured with two previous plays (with unwieldy titles like “Carl Rosensweig, How Was Your Vasectomy?”), and they even had their own satirical hip-hop group, the Grafenberg All-Stars, named after the doctor who discovered the G spot.
This diversity of sources leads by design to a diverse audience as well. “Part of our company mission is to get people to experience theater who might not think of going,” said Saibil. “We promote our show by flyering in hip-hop clubs.”
But that doesn’t mean they’re neglecting the obvious Jewish appeal. “The whole show is filled with Jewish in-jokes,” said Saibil. “At one point MC Abel rhymes “fishy” with “potato-knishy,” and MC Cain thinks that’s too much of a stretch, so the show breaks down and the narrative of Job stops while they have an MC battle. And more seriously, Cain and Abel argue as to the best way to tell the story of Job and the meaning of the story, and those arguments come from mine and Eli’s discussion and also rabbinic and scholarly debate.”
“The more religious people are, the more they like the show,” Batalion said, “because they’re more likely to be attuned to the story and more interested in the new ways we’re telling it.”
When their New York run is over in May, they won’t take a minute to rest. They have a dizzying list of new projects planned: more Job dates all over the United States, a new hip-hop club act, various collaborations and the June Montreal Fringe Festival premiere of the sequel to Job, tentatively titled “Abel’s Ladder: The Musequel,” which has yet to be written. “This is how we work,” explained Batalion with tongue firmly in cheek. “We book dates, and then we write the stuff. It’s all DIY — Do it, Yossi!”
Anya Kamenetz is a writer living in New York City.