Thursday, November 13, 2008
It was great to receive a reminder from Dan Wolf a couple weeks ago about an exciting event, his stage version of Adam Mansbach's hilarious novel, Angry Black White Boy. Dan's play, which he also stars in, has been garnering rave reviews, as well as an extended run, through November 23 at San Francisco’s Intersection for the Arts. Mansbach’s novel (which I wrote about awhile back, here) is a primary inspiration for me, and its flawed protagonist, Macon Detornay, is the source of my nom de blog, “Macon D.” I suggested the interview below about Dan’s new play, and what led him to it.
Dan Wolf is an actor, playwright, educator, and MC, as well as a rapper with the live hip-hop group Felonious. His co-authored play Beatbox: A Raparetta was produced in San Francisco, Oakland, Germany, and at the New York Hip Hop Theater Festival. Dan is currently developing The Stateless Project, a hip-hop and beatbox infused theatrical collaboration that combines German and Jewish history with the problems of racism and the Jewish African American Experience, and he’s also working on a documentary film entitled return of the tuedelband, a multi-media lecture, and a museum installation.
In Angry Black White Boy, Macon, a white student at Columbia who also drives a cab, decides to avenge the unearned privileges of white people and their ongoing oppression of black people. He begins by robbing businessmen that he picks up on Wall Street; when these crimes gain media attention, Macon and his friends, Nique and Dre, decide to go national, including a National Day of Apology, which involves apologies delivered personally and individually by whites to blacks.
Wolf’s stage production of this farcical, biting satire includes storytelling, poetry, rap, beatboxing, ballet and hip-hop dance; you can read recent reviews here, here, and here.
MD: So what grabbed you about Mansbach's novel? And what did it take to finally get it up on the stage?
DW: I heard Adam on the KPFA show “Hard Knock Radio” talking about the book. It was at a time that I was seriously pondering why a white dude like myself had a right to go into schools and juvenile halls and teach kids about hip hop. That was basically my day job for about ten years, and I was able to really engage folks in an artistic approach to hip hop, but always nagging at me was the political side of it. The “right” and “ownership” I was exercising in a culture that was obviously not born on the streets I grew up on. I guess it was part of my maturation process as a person and an artist.
A lot of my work is about looking back so we can move forward, and this question fit right into that process. I also work as a producer at the Jewish Community Center in San Francisco, and when Adam was looking for places to promote his next book The End of the Jews, he contacted me. At the end of our first meeting I let him know that after reading Angry Black White Boy I felt that it had so much dramatic possibility, and that I wanted to use it as the source material for a new theater play, and he was down. That's how it started.
MD: Could you give us a quick history of your hip-hop group, Felonious? And has the group done much racially aware work?
DW: Felonious started in 1994 as a three man a capella hip hop group. Just MCs and Beatboxers, and we'd perform in coffee shops and at house parties. We moved out to Santa Fe (I went to school there for a year) and started to get all experimental with jazz musicians and drummers. When we landed back SF we found the guys to make Felonious a live band and started to build there. Felonious is mixed racially, but since we all came from a theater background that never really played into the art of it all. I keep saying “art” ‘cause I do believe there is an artistic side to hip hop, and then a political side and, until our work on ABWB, most of what we did was in the artistic side of things. Really pushing what you think hip hop is and breaking down stereotypes not by what we said, but purely who we were.
MD: How much input did Adam Mansbach have in transforming his novel into your play?
DW: He wrote the book and the book is the source. He is so good at dialogue and, at least in my initial adaptation, I kept very true to his words. I think he is one of the most intellectual dudes I have ever met in the hip hop world. He is smart and biting and really true to his game. He gave us notes on the script but he wasn't that involved in the whole process of getting it up. He has a screenplay adaptation of the book that he’s been shopping around and that proved challenging, because I think in his mind it's the definitive adaptation. He got the entire book into a 2 hour film which is amazing considering how much ground is covered in that 300 + page book.
My adaptation was initially about 130 pages and that was condensing the entire book into a five-character piece. As we moved into rehearsal we only used 4 actors, so we condensed that 130 page script into about 57 pages. Early on we read a version of “Book One – Race” (ABWB has three “books” in it) and the reading took over 90 minutes. The director and I knew we had a lot to cut to make this a play that was performed in 90 minutes with no intermission. We couldn't cut enough to have no intermission, and so the first act is now 90 minutes and the second act is 40 minutes. And even at that length we only do Books One and Two.
MD: So you yourself play the novel's protagonist, Macon Detornay. Did you have any trouble turning him into a plausible stage presence?
DW: Macon is a hard character to play. On one side I totally connect to the white Jewish suburban dude raised on hip hop. I always say I learned about hip hop on mixtapes via satellite, meaning I was listening to these songs in my room and deciphering the codes and learning about the characters in the same way I learned to break down a Shakespeare character or a Mamet character. The Beastie Boys were the first to really make me own my love of hip hop (Paul's Boutique not License to Ill). I loved the collage of the Dust Brothers' music and the energy of these dudes making music with their friends.
Then I heard NWA and the message grabbed me by the balls and made me realize that this is a music about fighting a real power of oppression, a power that still to this day doesn't mean the same for me as it does folks from other communities. (I could insert some BS about Jews and holocaust and my family and that's why I connected to hip hop, but it’s bigger than that, so I won’t). Then I found the Pharcyde and the creativity of hip hop. They broke it open for me. The underdog as intellectual. The nerd getting the girl. The comedy and limitless rhythmic possibilities. I was a bboy waaaaaaay before I thought about rapping, and that led me to soulsonic force and herbie and all the other west coast breaking musicians, but really all that was coming to me through movies and TV not the streets, so I'm second generation with all that.
Macon is a hard dude not to judge. He is the thing he hates and as the novel and play progresses, it becomes clear that his privilege reigns supreme. I tried not to judge him as I read the book and wrote it, but that's who he is. I have to play him fully on stage. We have one other white dude playing all the obnoxious characters, as well as Red in the Fleet scenes [these are characters from a subplot that involves old-time baseball players, including Macon’s racist ancestor]. You think Macon will be the righteous one and this other guy is the asshole, but it’s really the opposite. Macon bitches out in the end and becomes like “all these other white folks out here,” while Red sacrifices his life for the cause. That's a real hero.
MD: I haven't seen the play yet, but I assume there's some music in it? Does Macon perform at all, and is there enough music to actually call it a "musical"? If not, did you ever consider going that route?
DW: The play is not a musical but everything in the play responds to music, ‘cause that's what Macon is responding to and that's the world of hip hop. Tommy Shepherd plays Nique (among others) and he’s also the Musical Director. He’s also the BADDEST beatboxer and is basically a human jukebox. He brings in live beatboxing and uses a Boss Loop Station to build layered soundscapes that illuminate the moment and the movement. The whole beginning of the show is a soundscape of songs like Jungle Brothers’ “Black is Black,” Pharcyde's “Running,” PE's “Public Enemy #1,” and Cube's “Amerikkka's Most Wanted,” all performed live with stomping beatboxing vocals and melodic singing. We come from a live aesthetic and that's what we like to incorporate into all our work. We also use samples from other pre-recorded hip hop songs.
MD: AWBW’s Macon displays pretty openly his hip hip influences and borrowings, as well as a wide and well-understood range of other elements of African American culture, history, style, and so on. Is it fair to say that Macon is "blacker than a lot of black people"?
DW: I’m not playing him as blacker than black. I am playing him as a white dude who is caught up in his own mind, his own guilt, and the race against history. He is certainly well versed and can hold his own or Nique would beat his ass from the jump. But he's not trying to disappear into the culture. In fact he wants to stand out as white.
We talked a lot about what his hair should look like. Shaved head or white-boy style. In the end we kept his hair long and his face shaved clean because Macon needs to stick out to get his point across. He needs people to be able to challenge him and have his victory be “you’re pretty cool for a white dude.” I guess if being blacker comes from knowledge versus action then yes, he's blacker. But as Nique says, “I’m gonna die black with or without you,” so no, he doesn't fully disappear into it, even if folks let him into the club.
MD: Do you have any favorite lines from the novel that made it into the play?
DW: I like the line "You gonna eat that pickle? I demand that pickle as reparations, wasssup!" that made it. One line that didn't make it was the line about the cooks at Justin’s restaurant. Something like, "What does he do, hire chefs that were hot in the 80's to remix their dishes?” The director didn't like it but I wanted it in there.
MD: How have audiences been reacting so far?
DW: Great. Sold out every night since we opened and we have extended it till November 23 (possibly all the way until December 7). With the election it’s been interesting. I’ve started to say at the curtain speech that this play should be the beginning of a conversation and since Obama won, don't get it twisted, racism is not dead in America, it’s just wearing a new layer.
MD: Can you tell us what you think white people should do?
DW: Stop being such self-centered assholes and actually realize that there are other people in the world.
MD: Any possibilities yet for taking Angry Black White Boy to other cities?
DW: I hope. We'll see.
MD: I hope so too, so I can see it! Thanks so much for your time, Dan.