Ultra-hip-hop to Germany includes a Wolf in chic clothing

In the realm of artistic particle physics, sometimes you can smash two genres together, sometimes you can’t.

“Stateless,” a musical play that opened Oct. 22 at the Jewish Theatre, San Francisco, attempts to fuse antique vaudeville with modern hip-hop. The results are mixed, though spirited performances from writer-stars Dan Wolf and Tommy Shepherd keep “Stateless” fun and engaging for the entire 70 minutes.

The play’s loose-as-sand plot revolves around Wolf’s journey to Germany to reclaim the legacy of his real-life forebears, the Brothers Wolf, famous Jewish vaudevillians who became legends in Hamburg in the early 1900s. Accompanying him is his best friend, Shepherd, a black hip-hop artist unable to embark on a similar search for roots.

Their journey often pauses for comic repartee, high-octane song-and-dance and rapping. Flights of fancy include Shepherd’s marvelous beat-box interlude in which he pantomimes bouncing a basketball, and a hilarious re-enactment of their turbulent flight to Europe.

Tommy Shepherd (left) and Dan Wolf perform in the musical play “Stateless.” photo/ken friedman

This is not the first time hip-hop has graced the TJT stage (Tim Barsky spit his share of rhymes in his 2005 show “Bright River”). But in “Stateless,” Wolf and Shepherd, who also collaborated last year on the avante-garde stage presentation of “Angry Black White Boy,” expose TJT audiences not only to superior rapping and beatboxing, but a valuable history of the art form.


The two make a delightfully odd couple. Shepherd towers over Wolf like a linebacker over a jockey. They come at the audience full on, with call-and-response, raucous claps and foot stomps. And they have perfected their Marx brothers-style comedic timing.

Produced in partnership with the Hub at the JCC of San Francisco, “Stateless” feels fairly formless until the halfway point, when Wolf and Shepherd are in Germany learning more about the Brothers Wolf. The brothers’ silly song about boys playing with hoops became the unofficial anthem of Hamburg (sung there to this day), but because they were Jews living in Nazi Germany, they had been stripped of the right to sing it.

The musical high point comes when Wolf and Shepherd take that little oom-pah-pah tune and pimp it out, proving vaudeville and rap can co-exist, if only for a few beats.

The show deepens when Shepherd, envious of Wolf’s successful search for roots, laments he barely knew his own father, let alone his great-grandparents or where they originated. A poignant musical moment by his father’s unmarked grave in Louisiana is another of the show’s highlights.

Not everything works. One bit about smoking a joint feels like a Cheech and Chong outtake, and the scatological song “Sheise” (based on a Wolf Brothers routine) is charmless. Unfortunately much of the Wolf Brothers material recast here, while certainly of historical interest, has a moldy scent to it, unable to stand the artistic test of time.

Yet audiences cannot help but remain on the show’s side. Not only are Wolf and Shepherd a joy to watch, so is co-star Keith Pinto, who portrays an array of characters, from the snooty flight attendant to turntable DJ during the hip-hop numbers. Pinto sings, acts, dances and spins with aplomb.

Wolf has said before that there is “no intrinsic connection between Judaism and hip-hop,” and “Stateless” makes no attempt to do so. Yet the underlying theme of exile and disconnection finds a home in both the Jewish and African diasporas. That’s connection enough.

“Stateless” might not be Broadway-ready, nor will it likely spawn a cadre of hip-hop fans from regular TJT theatergoers, but it provides a breezy jolt of entertainment.

“Stateless” continues through Dec. 6 at the Jewish Theatre, San Francisco, 470 Florida St., S.F. $15-$45. Information: (415) 292-1233 or www.tjt-sf.org.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.