In the past, playwright, actor and hip-hop artist Dan Wolf has written several plays that touched on his Jewish identity.
Not this time. His new play is all about a different Promised Land: Berkeley.
Wolf’s reverence for his adopted hometown shines through in “Daylighting,” a work commissioned by Berkeley’s Shotgun Players. The latest in Shotgun’s Berkeley Stories Project, the play launches a monthlong world-premiere run on Wednesday, May 21.
Unlike his previous theater pieces, such as “Angry Black White Boy” and “Stateless,” Wolf, 38, will not be in the cast of “Daylighting.” Says the playwright, “This is the first play I’ve written that I’m not in. I’m not producing it, not in it, not shaping it as we go along.”
That’s because he’s onstage in another play, “Chasing Mehserle,” at San Francisco’s Intersection for the Arts. It’s about the Jan. 1, 2009 fatal shooting of an unarmed black man, Oscar Grant, by a BART police officer at the Fruitvale station.
That play, along with “Daylighting,” as well his work with the hip-hop collective Felonious, underscore Wolf’s deep affinity for hip-hop and African American culture.
That doesn’t mean he’s given up his Jewish credentials or commitment to the Jewish community. Wolf formerly directed the Hub, a theater arts program of the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, and today serves as creative content producer of the JCC’s 3200 Stories, an ongoing, online publication.
“Daylighting” tells the story of Bee, a young Berkeleyite who sorts through life’s challenges as she makes her way across the city one night, from the heights of the U.C. Berkeley campus to the flat marshy wastes of the bay.
By design, the real star of “Daylighting” is the city itself in all its half-crazy, multicultural splendor. Wolf, who grew up in San Rafael and lived in San Francisco before moving to Berkeley a few years ago, promptly fell in love with the place.
“It feels like one of the boroughs of New York,” he says. “It’s densely populated but there is a small-town vibe to it. I love the Berkeley most people don’t know of. I’m not interested in what happens at Sproul Plaza, but I wanted to know why Shellmound is called Shellmound and why University Avenue goes all the way out to the pier.”
The new play slips in plenty of Berkeley history lessons, including answering Wolf’s own inquiries about the pier and the shellmounds (one-time Indian burial mounds paved over years ago).
“Angry Black White Boy,” based on Adam Mansbach’s popular 2005 novel, premiered at Intersection for the Arts in 2008, ran for 12 sold-out weeks and was named one of the year’s top 10 best plays by the San Francisco Chronicle.
As a director and educator Wolf has worked with American Conservatory Theater, Berkeley Rep School of Theatre, Intersection for the Arts and Youth Speaks, among others.
His play “Stateless” told his family history, going back to great-grandfather Leopold Wolf who, with two brothers, formed the Hamburg-based Brothers Wolf in late 19th century.
Like great-grandfather, like great-grandson. Wolf, too, became a musician and entertainer, though he worries about the climate for the arts these days.
“I’m saddened … to see the lack of support for arts and artists,” he says, citing “the loss” of San Francisco’s Traveling Jewish Theatre, the Jewish record producer JDub and the N.Y.-based Foundation of Jewish Culture, which is closing due to budget problems. “How can we create the next generation of Jews interested in telling Jewish stories?” Wolf asks.
While the greater community attempts to answer that question, Wolf says he will go on telling his own stories.
“We have to have creativity that acts as a conversation starter,” he says. “I see my role as artist and Jew as that: How can we use art, storytelling and expression to be inclusive, and get at the sticky complexities?”
“Daylighting” runs Wednesday, May 21-June 22 at Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley. $8-$23. www.shotgunplayers.org or (510) 841-6500.