By: Darryl Reilly
“This show is a love story, it’s my love letter to my wife.” So, states Steve Krantz during his wrenching yet often humorous solo show, When Your Soulmate Dies. It is a heartfelt and moving tribute to performer Naimah Hassan, who died in October 2022. Beginning in 1980’s Downtown burlesque clubs, the married couple of the white Mr. Krantz and the Black Ms. Hassan performed together as the comedy duo Epstein and Hassan: The Black and The Jew, in a variety of New York City venues. “Blackjewlove’ was their signature catchphrase.
They were inspired by Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara who mined their inter-faith marriage for historic comedic gold as Stiller and Meara. Pornographers Larry Flynt and Al Goldstein were admirers and benefactors of Epstein and Hassan who likened them to Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor. “We have no money, lousy living conditions and a failing career as a husband-and-wife comedy team called “the Black and the Jew.” Their act was their child. They lived together for nearly 40 years in a cramped West Village tenement apartment. A long-ago rave Village Voice review gave Epstein and Hassan traction, but they did not get their due on the New York City performing arts scene, let alone in the mainstream.
Those who experienced Epstein and Hassan live, have fond memories of their fierce, hilarious and earthy routines, which dealt with race and sexuality. They each had beaming stage presences and complemented each other to optimum effect. Those unfamiliar with their achievements should be entertained and enlightened by When Your Soulmate Dies, their poignant final co-written collaboration.
The mature Brooklyn-born Krantz has a polished authentic persona and adept comic timing honed from his early career as a noted jazz club master of ceremonies and from his decades of performing set pieces with his late wife. He majestically holds the stage for 85 minutes during his affective personal chronicle.
When Your Soulmate Dies was performed in a small, white-accented studio space. Kranz’s well-written and well-conceived spoken segments are a non linear biogrpahical journey. Much of the show’s first half is taken up with eloquent George Carlin-style justifiable rants against the derelict New York City hospitals and nursing homes which Hassan was at the mercy of during her two-year physical decline due to kidney failure, cancer and Covid. The cumulative impact of these reminiscences is akin to “Give my daughter the shot!” from Terms of Endearment. There is a wistful episode of a sympathetic Muslim taxi driver who drove Krantz to the hospital after Hassan died. The show’s original shattering title was, All They Can See is An Old Black Woman in a Wheelchair.
Krantz performs in front of a projection screen. Alas, there is no photo montage of him and his wife or video clips of their routines. The screen is only used near the end for heartbreaking footage of Hassan on her hospital deathbed relating three life observations laced with her Buddhist beliefs.
The power of When Your Soulmate Dies is that through Krantz’s soulful performance and pointed writing he ultimately offers a full-fledged portrait of his wife. Hassan was an unsung gifted performer whose existence is reclaimed by this show.
Naimah Hassan was born in Port Chester, New York, which had a large Black population, it provided workers to nearby affluent Greenwich, Connecticut. Ms. Hassan’s mother was one of the legions of Black women who were domestic employees known back then as “Colored Girls.” The spirited and vivacious Hassan came to Manhattan in the 1970’s filled with enthusiasm to be an actress. In 1983, she encountered Steve Krantz at a jazz club, became smitten with him, instigated their relationship and then their performing career.
Whoopi Goldberg was discovered in that era by Mike Nichols and Hassan had similar hopes when Bill Cosby was announced to attend one of her shows. Afterward, Cosby came backstage and scolded her for her raunchy material and left in disgust. “America’s Dad called me a ho!” was her take. An audition for Spike Lee for a part in one his movies went nowhere. Disenchanted with show business, she became a New York City school system improv teacher for the steady paycheck and the health benefits, she went on to have a fulfilling career in that field.
When Your Soulmate Dies is a searing, informative and stark theatrical odyssey.
When Your Soulmate Dies (Saturdays at 7:30 PM, through June 24, 2023)
Alchemical Theatre, 50 West 17th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit www.theblackandthejew.com
Running time: 85 minutes without an intermission