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Bad Rap

November 25, 2009

Celebration of Jewish affinity for black culture skews more vaudeville than hip-hop.

The Jewish love affair with hip-hop — a romance grounded in the art of the Beastie Boys, the High and Mighty, Lyor Cohen, MC Serch, DJ Steinski, and Blood of Abraham, among many, many others — has been thoroughly documented over the last few years. Countless books and blogs by Jewish authors, most of them male, describe the historical and cultural affinity Jews feel for black culture. "Hip-hop is the music of struggle, and we, because of our history of oppression, are naturally drawn to narratives of resistance and civil rights," author Jason Tanz (Other People's Property: A Shadow History of Hip-Hop in White America) wrote in 2007.

A Jewish rapper and actor's passionate engagement with hip-hop culture is at the heart of Stateless: A Hip-Hop Vaudeville Experience, a rap-and-beatbox–infused world premiere theater production at the Jewish Theatre. Stateless is primarily the work of performer Dan Wolf and his frequent artistic partner, African-American beatboxer and actor Tommy Shepherd. Shepherd and Wolf comprise the live hip-hop band Felonious, and last year joined forces for the engrossing stage adaptation of Adam Mansbach's novel, Angry Black White Boy, at Intersection for the Arts.

Inspired by Wolf's ancestral roots in German-Jewish vaudeville, Stateless reconstructs his legacy through weaving together old-school, Mittel-European stage traditions with hip-hop to create an intriguing if ultimately unsatisfying visual, choreographic, and musical collage. Low-slung pants, turntables, and breakdance steps are as much a feature of Wolf and Shepherd's performance as are jazz hands, Holocaust references, and songs about German cuisine. But as much as their latest collaboration aims to fuse Jewish and black traditions to demonstrate a shared heritage of persecution and "statelessness," the production ends up feeling lopsided. Despite the equal billing of the progenitors, this "hip-hop vaudeville experience" feels more vaudeville than hip-hop.

This is partly because Stateless places the greatest emphasis on Wolf's personal story, specifically his journey to Hamburg to learn about his past. The history of his vaudevillian ancestors is fascinating: Under the stage name of the Gebrüder Wolf (the Brothers Wolf), a German-Jewish performance troupe of the 1920s, Wolf's great-grandfather and great-granduncle composed what grew to become a popular German tune. According to Wolf, "Tüdelband," a comic song that takes its name from the then-popular children's pastime of chasing a rolling metal hoop while hitting it with a stick, became such a huge hit that the Nazis declared it too German for Jews to sing.

Contrastingly, Shepherd's poignant personal narrative about returning to his hometown of Lake Charles, La., feels comparatively inconsequential. It just doesn't get the same amount of airplay and depth of development as Wolf's more exotic tale of international intrigue. This is a shame, as Shepherd is a charismatic storyteller and soulful musician. One of the highlights of the show is "Durge," a slow-burning, intricate vocal solo written and performed by Shepherd. He uses loop pedals and the simple refrain "My people come from ..." to build a beautiful, thick-textured musical contemplation on our complex relationship with our roots.

The production's core performers come from entirely different backgrounds. Hip-hop culture is their main shared point of reference. As such, the movement vocabulary of Stateless marries vaudevillelike shtick (lots of flapping arms, hammy facial expressions, and fast footwork) with the looser-limbed, earthbound body language employed by MCs. Meanwhile, the musical soundtrack, much of it created by the New York–based whimsical alt-rock band One Ring Zero, leverages the beats, rhymes, and structures of rap. But Wolf's Jewish heritage remains a near-constant presence throughout. Many of the musical numbers, such as "Comet Song" (which showcases Allen Willner's gorgeous starry-night-sky lighting design) and "Scheisse" ("Shit") are based on original material by the Gebrüder Wolf.

The cultural mashup makes for some inspiring scenes, such as a hilarious rap version of a Gebrüder Wolf song about gorging on "Snuten und Poten" — a German, if not very kosher, delicacy consisting of various parts of a pig. But Stateless never quite jells as a whole. The show was developed over six years through intermittent workshops and miniperformances. Today, in its full-length form, it still feels like a series of isolated, work-in-progress moments rather than a full-fledged piece of theater with a strong dramaturgical shape — and, most crucially, a sense of balance between the disparate cultures it seeks to mesh.

That balance issue in Stateless might simply reflect the reality of the relationship between Jews and blacks in contemporary culture. Hip-hop has many Jewish fans: An online search for "Jews and hip-hop" brings up millions of hits, but blacks don't seem to share nearly the same level of interest in Jewish culture as Jews have for theirs. (There are only a handful of hits for "African-American and klezmer.") Where, for instance, are the black community's answers to Danny Hoch and the Klezmatics? Why are there so few black rabbis? Perhaps that's why the Borscht Belt factor in Stateless overpowers its B-boy side. Ultimately, the black experience of struggle and oppression may have less in common with that of the Jews than the Jews would like to think.

Signing-off note: After nearly five years as SF Weekly's chief theater critic, I am moving on. Thanks, dear readers, for your attentiveness and to the ever-creative local performing arts community for continuously engaging my heart and mind. You can now read me every Sunday in The New York Times, where I am the Bay Area culture columnist, and I can always be found online at



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