Multi-disciplinary performer Dan Wolf will be presenting this Sunday on art and identity at Inside the Activists’ Studio in San Francisco (which in full disclosure JVoices is a co-sponsor of again, and I will be presenting at as well). Currently a Resident Artist with the Hybrid Project at Intersection for the Arts, and a founding member of hip-hop collective Felonious, I caught up with Dan in an email interview to discuss his latest show, a stage adaptation of Adam Mansbach’s novel, Angry Black White Boy: or The Miscegenation of Macon Detornay, and how the work’s central themes tear at the guts of race, privilege and identity in the United States. Tackling the tensions of whiteness, and in this specific cultural context, white Jewish men in hip-hop culture, ABWB raises important minefields often unstated in new Jewish cultural commentary. In an interview Mansbach wrote, “Behind it, for Macon, and for me, and for any white kid drawn to hip hop, lurks an entire pathology about blackness and black people. Easier than destroying that pathology is believing yourself to be an exception to the rule.” Through ABWB, what Mansbach does in his novel, and what Wolf brings to the stage, is not just a hyperbolic display of white guilt, but a charge that requires audience members and readers alike to push beyond the comfortable analysis and lines we’ve drawn in the crashes and clashes of race in America. Let’s be clear, ABWB foils post-race proclamations — the elements sting for too long to let you off the hook.

CK: Your rendition of Adam Mansbach’s novel, Angry Black White Boy (ABWB), is now in it’s third extended running at Intersection of the Arts, receiving rave reviews from theater critics and staged to sold out audiences. Tell us how this novel spoke to you in a way that made you want to produce it for the stage.

DW: It’s very cinematic and dramatic. When I first read ABWB I saw it real clear in my head and knew that it was an important story for me to get inside. I am someone who is in constant reflection about my work and this novel came to me at a time when I was really questioning my place as a white Jewish man in a Black art-form. It seemed like a great vehicle to utilize and explore white privilege, mine and others, history and guilt, cultural tourism and, ultimately, the truth of what I really stand for. Plus it was a tremendous challenge, and as an artist, I needed that.

CK: ABWB tackles issues of race and Jewish identity head-on. You yourself cross worlds in your artistic work, from working during the day at The Hub at the JCCSF, to performing with your hip-hop band, Felonious, at night. Undoubtedly, you think a lot about what it means to produce art where identity, race, culture and history are at the core. So, what are the tensions that keep you up at night? Where do you worry that you’ve crossed the line, if at all? And, what lines do you want to push and question in your work?

DW: What doesn’t keep me up at night? I am a new father of a 7 month old boy and just seeing the world through his eyes is enough to make you worry about everything.

I grew up in a first generation, post Holocaust suburban family where assimilating and making money was important. There is a lot of anxiety and fear built in, fundamentally, so really I see the work that I do as a healing agent first and foremost. For myself and my family. For my dead grandparents who could only dream of the freedom that we take for granted. This freedom has afforded me the privilege and, dare I say, the right, to demand that I get what I want. But you never get what you want when you want it and your character is the space between what you want and what you get. So I am in a constant battle with trying to be somewhere I am not, and the urge to figure out how to eventually get there.

ABWB is a play about race, black and white specifically, and is performed by 2 black dudes and 2 white dudes. There are clear lines that can get crossed. Misinterpretations and assumptions that are pitfalls everywhere, like who gets to say the word Ninja and who doesn’t. Ninja is our off stage substitution for the N word. Like if you are reading someone’s part and they say that word but it’s not your line you have to say Ninja. Like if we’re NOT in performance and we are doing a line-through you say Ninja. It’s a line that doesn’t EVER get crossed. We’re just sensitive to it.

CK: What does this production say, for you, about your artistic work, and the lessons you hope to inspire in others in engaging in art as a form of rattling and challenging the collective imagination?

DW: What I learn by working at Intersection and with Director Sean San Jose is that the art is the community center. The center piece for the discussion. And you need to be able to include others at that table. That if you are only creating a play or a piece of art for the sake of itself or with a single focus – to make money, fame, authority, whatever – that it’s a very limited road. You get to the answer very quickly. I only want to be challenged, whether that means a I do a comedy next or figure out how to create a song cycle that is a call and response with time and space, I want the work I do challenge me in a way that is scary. Like, can I do this? What will this say about me? What will I learn about myself? And then I want to work my ass off to see if I can pull it off. I think the missing piece for all of us is the reality of how much work it’s gonna take to get out of your own way and let the unknown rise to the surface.

CK: Do you have any other projects you’re currently working on?

DW: Yes, The Stateless Project which is about the history of my family in Hamburg, Germany. It is based on some real life experiences of discovering that The Wolf Brothers (my great grand parents) were famous vaudevillians in Hamburg before the war. They wrote the most famous song from Hamburg in 1911. In 1938, the Nazis said it was now a German song and no longer belonged to the Jews who wrote it. The Stateless Project is a multi-disciplinary, international art project that aims to build new forms of Holocaust remembrance and cross-cultural dialogue.


CK: Without giving your workshop session away in full, give us a taste of what you hope to share with participants about art and identity.

DW: It will really depend on who is in the room. It’s about looking at who comes and what they are trying to do and really explore the best modes and sources to get at self through art.