R.I.P. Naimah Hassan

We were so sorry to hear this morning that Naimah Hassan passed away on October 25, which just so happens to have been the anniversary of her first date with her husband and artistic partner Steve Krantz. When I first heard the news, I assumed for a second that they had both died, for I have never encountered the one without the other, in any context. Their names were always joined, and they were always physically together. Of course it was inevitable that one day one would leave the earth without the other, but it had never occurred to me that such a thing would be possible.

Epstein and Hassan were somewhere between a comedy team and a two-hander performance art act. They were frequently billed as “The Black and the Jew” and their thing was something called blackjewlove, a sort of concept of their merged spirits, something like the Beast with Two Backs. That idea is usually a crude one, but in the case of Epstein and Hassan their mutual love affair was always frankly, often hilariously (and for many of us shockingly, which was part of the delight) about SEX. Like a porn level of sex. I’m pretty sure I’ve never been around people who were franker and freerer and less hung up about the topic. It wasn’t an intrusion on their parts, they weren’t trying to invade your barriers. They were just being completely honest and open. They were sharing something they considered beautiful. Rather than a beast, they were like an Angel with Two Backs. And they were amused by your discomfort, but not in a mean way. More like a wise one. Like, “Silly mortals, to find the gift of Orgone energy so squirm inducing!”

You might say — “This is all very L.A. — shouldn’t they be on the WEST coast?” But haha, no, they were definitely New Yorkers, fast talking, wisecracking New Yorkers. As an act, I always considered them sort of a cross between Stiller and Meara (whose love for each other was perpetually palpable) and Howard Stern and Robin, who aren’t involved romantically, but have the same Jew-Black, Male-Female dynamic. I’ve known them for over 20 years and as is true of many, have worked with them in every possible combination (except sexual!): we’ve appeared on bills together, they’ve been in my shows, I’ve reviewed their shows, I was their publicist on one occasion, and I went on their podcast/radio show shortly after my book No Applause was released. I’m sure I met them and got to know them through interaction at venues like Surf Reality and Theater for the New City. The nature of the act wasn’t just personal and social, but also very political. Discussions of race and religion (and racism and Anti-Semitism), and gender issues and much else were part and parcel of the material. It was the kind of performance I once took for granted, but I’m realizing has now become kind of scarce. Not to throw shade on the younger generation, but they seem…guarded. Epstein and Hassan? There were no walls there, only bridges for those who were willing to walk across.

They did a live show together at the Alchemical Theatre as recently as May. The show was called What You Can and Cannot Say During Interracial Sex. The news of Naimah’s death came to me as sudden, but apparently she’d been seriously ill for months, suffering from a terrifying sounding combination of ailments including gallbladder cancer, kidney failure, Covid, anemia, and injury from a fall. Apparently, in her final days she and Steve worked up some new material, which he has announced he will be presenting in the Spring. So the question of what he’ll be doing next is asked and answered. My sympathy goes out to him…and the rest of us.

Update, February 2023: The show opened! My post on it is here.