Stateless filters family history through hip-hop

Actor/rapper Dan Wolf remembers the exact moment he got the idea for “Stateless,” his new play set to premiere this month. It came in a plain manila envelope.

Wolf’s German-born grandmother, Beatrice, died in 1999. Six months later, Wolf’s father solemnly handed his son an envelope hidden among Beatrice’s personal affects, saying simply, “Here’s your next piece.”

Inside was a 42-page letter written by Wolf’s late grandfather and addressed to his two grandchildren. In those painstakingly detailed pages, Donat Wolf (1902-1984) spun an amazing tale of the Wolf family rising to the top of Germany’s musical comedy stage a hundred years earlier; of family members fleeing the Nazi firestorm; of others who perished in the Shoah.

It was a lot for the San Rafael native to take in. But one thing was certain. His father was correct. The letter would ultimately become the source of Wolf’s highly personal labor of love for the stage.

“Stateless” tells the story of the Wolf family, weaving hip-hop music, beatbox (amplified vocal rhythms) along with German, Jewish and African American history. The play makes its official premiere on Thursday, May 26, at the Intersection for the Arts in San Francisco.

Wolf, 29, teamed up with fellow hip-hop musician Tommy Shepherd to co-create and co-perform the piece. Wolf plays himself, but Shepherd, an African American, plays multiple roles in “Stateless.” He helps link the dislocation of European Jewry with the disaster that befell African slaves.

Yet, as Wolf says, “it starts with me reading the letter. My grandfather’s intention was to tell me who he was and make me curious about the past.”

The letter did the trick. It tells the story — also recounted in “Stateless” — of his great-grandfather Leopold Wolf who, with two brothers, formed the Hamburg-based Wolf Trio in 1895.

Eventually one dropped out and the team was then known as the Brothers Wolf. Resembling kooky silent film comics of old, the Wolfs blended slapstick, music and wild showmanship at the time vaudeville and English music hall made their marks elsewhere.

The Wolfs became Hamburg’s favorite entertainers, thanks largely to the song “An de Eck steiht’n Jung mit’n Tüdelband” (“The Boys on the Corner with the Hoop”), which was akin to a modern chart-topping hit single.

So popular was the tune, it is still sung in Hamburg today. Contemporary German researchers have even put together an exhaustive documentary film and book about the song, the Wolfs and their descendants through the Weimar Republic days, the Holocaust, right down to Dan Wolf himself.

One message from that documentary was simple: The apple didn’t fall far from the tree. The younger Wolf has followed in the footsteps of his forebears, although with a decidedly hip-hop flavor. “Stateless” is his attempt to come full circle.

From the time he was a child, Wolf wanted to sing and act. Growing up in the early days of hip-hop, he gravitated towards that art form, finding in it a home for his tastes and talents.

Meanwhile, he had a conventional Jewish upbringing, having a bar mitzvah and making teen trips to Israel. (“At 16,” he notes, “I walked out of [Jerusalem Holocaust Memorial] Yad Vashem and said, ‘That’s why I’m Jewish.'”)

He has since developed an extensive artistic career, both as an actor and musician, especially with his hip-hop ensemble Felonious.

“The Beastie Boys brought hip-hop to my neighborhood,” he says of his pantheon of rap music heroes. “N.W.A. taught me the social and political message and Pharcyde taught me about limitless creative experience.”

(For the uninitiated, the above-mentioned artists are hip-hop legends and headliners.)

Turned out his ancestors had musical passions of their own. Leopold Wolf’s son Donat (Dan Wolf’s grandfather) met his future wife, Beatrice, in China when their families fled to Shanghai out the outbreak of war.

The couple later settled in San Francisco. Their son Frank was born in 1949, and he later fathered Dan Wolf. But the story of the Wolf Trio and the family’s music past seemed to have been forgotten. The younger Wolf grew up knowing nothing about them. That is, until he read his grandfather’s letter. Then, his Jewish history and place in the world began to make sense.

In creating “Stateless,” Wolf traveled several times to Germany. He’s performed the show in various states of development in Hamburg (as well as at the Hub, sponsored by the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, and at other local outlets). He even does a hip-hop version of song “An de Eck steiht’n Jung mit’n Tüdelband” in the show.

“I want Jewish parents to bring their kids,” he says. “I want people in their 50s, their 60s, people who say ‘I hate hip-hop.'”

Once the show opens, Wolf hopes to take it to other stages locally and around the country. No surprise since, perhaps more than with most people, the theater is in his blood. “I come from a theater tradition,” he says. “And I always wanted to do a hybrid of theater and music.”

“Stateless” plays 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, May 26 to June 4, at Intersection for the Arts, 446 Valencia St., S.F. Tickets: $9-$15. Information: (415) 626-3311.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.