The Bible is one of the most frequently and widely read books in the history of the world, so it’s hardly surprising that its stories have served as inspiration for many and varied works of art. Job: The Hip-Hop Musical, now playing at the HERE Arts Center, is evidence not only that the tradition continues but that the well of inspiration is far from running dry.
Written and performed by Eli Batalion and Jerome Saibil, two recent graduates of Brown University, Job: The Hip-Hop Musical is bursting at the seams with energy. The stamina that Batalion and Saibil display in retelling the story of God’s servant and the many tests of his faith is remarkable. Each performer plays a host of characters filtered through the eyes of two rappers — MC Abel (Batalion) and MC Cain (Saibil) — who almost never cease in their rhyming, rapping, and singing during the show’s running time of approximately 60 minutes. Even at the end of the performance, these two showed few signs of being out of energy or even out of breath.
If the characterizations occasionally lack complexity, they’re intelligently executed and delineated. As Batalion and Saibil switch back and forth between playing various roles, it’s always made absolutely clear — through a continuity of prop use, facial expressions, etc. — who’s speaking at any given point. In a number late in the show, titled “Say You’re Sorry,” the pair seamlessly creates a veritable office-full of completely defined characters.
The creativity of the performances eclipses that of the music and lyrics (Paul Bercovitch assisted the performers with the former), which are functional but not much more. The score tells almost the entire story by itself, with only a few transitional lines of dialogue included in the show. If you’re familiar with hip-hop, you’ll undoubtedly be familiar with the style, although I’m sure few hip-hop and rap artists perform songs with titles like “Academic Tenure” and “Are You Ashamed Now?” The lyrics are frequently clever, if occasionally (and intentionally?) misrhymed, but the music doesn’t consistently echo that cleverness. The best musical number is the previously mentioned “Say You’re Sorry,” in which Batalion and Saibil brilliantly capture the incessant babble of judgmental know-it-alls. Few of the other songs attain this level of dramatic success; as most of them end with inconclusive lighting cues (Sam Shaffer is listed as the technician in charge), this is perhaps not surprising.
The biggest single problem with the show is the adaptation itself: The story of Job works on a basic level here, but the parallels drawn are not always apt. The musical Job has his salary and benefits cut by the president of the megalithic Hoover Records as a check of his company loyalty, yet his shock at having these things taken away resonates most strongly in his shattered sense of self-image when his wife, a college professor, receives tenure on the same day that he loses everything. This Job’s masculinity is threatened but his health and family remain essentially intact; the Biblical Job, who had to deal with powers greater than record company executives, was not so lucky. A sense of shallowness prevents Job: The Hip-Hop Musical from being truly effective, though much of its target audience is not likely to notice or care.
Still, the message of the original story does come through, however muted. No one is likely to miss the significance of the rappers’ names and the resolution they imply. Job: The Hip-Hop Musical is effective enough to show us why Biblical allegories will never go out of style.