Wolfe, George C.
George C. Wolfe
Playwright, director, producer
George C. Wolfe is a premier writer, director, and producer who brings an inclusive, creative voice to the American theater. His openness and handling of political, social, and cultural topics have directed needed attention to the myths and truths of American society. Wolfe's talents have earned him two Tony Awards and numerous other accolades. As artistic director of the New York Shakespeare Festival and the Joseph Papp Public Theater for over ten years, he gave a platform to many plays which later became Broadway hits. Wolfe's talents also led him into the film industry. His director debut with HBO Films opened a new venue for Wolfe.
Born September 23, 1954 in Frankfort, Kentucky, Wolfe knew the nurturing benefits of an all-black community and the harsh realities of this segregated town. Wolfe was the third of four children born to Costello and Ana Lindsey Wolfe. Wolfe's father worked for the Kentucky Department of Corrections, and his mother was a teacher. Wolfe attended the private all-black academy where his mother taught and later was a principal. As a child Wolfe was encouraged to excel and told he was blessed with extraordinary gifts. The concept of racial inferiority was not allowed to infiltrate this protective world in which Wolfe grew up and thrived. At the age of seven he came to understand racism: Wolfe was not allowed to enter the Frankfort Capital Theater to see the animated Disney film 101 Dalmatians because he was black. This experience made him determined to gain access to any place. It also reinforced his awareness that once having gained access, he should help others to do likewise.
Wolfe was interested in theater and wrote plays from an early age. At the age of twelve Wolfe travel to New York and saw his first Broadway play, Jerry Herman's Hello, Dolly! starring Pearl Bailey. Viewing this production was a most memorable experience. Back in Kentucky Wolfe joined theater workshops and pursued acting.
Eventually the family moved and Wolfe attended an integrated school. It was difficult for him at first, but through his involvement in directing plays he found a way to bridge his sense of isolation. After completing high school Wolfe enrolled in Kentucky State University, a historically black university, and his parents' alma mater. After a year he transferred to Pomona College in Claremont, California to study theater arts. In 1975 Wolfe's play Up for Grabs was performed at Pomona College and subsequently won the American College Theater Festival (ACTF) for playwriting in the Pacific Southern Region. Wolfe received his second ACTF award for playwriting in 1976 with Block Party. After receiving his B.A. in directing from Pomona College, Wolfe remained in California and continued writing. He took a teaching position at the City Cultural Center in Los Angeles and staged his plays Tribal Rites in 1978 and Back Alley Tales in 1979. While Wolfe's talents had earned him an almost cult following, he learned a great deal from the diverse communities in Los Angeles that were new to the Kentucky native. Wolfe came in contact with different communities, such as Asians and Hispanics, as well as the gay community. Wolfe himself began to come out more publicly. He also learned the use of theater as a social and political tool. Although enamored by this culturally enriching environment, Wolfe came to realize that Los Angeles was geared more toward television and movies than to the theater.
In 1979 Wolfe moved to New York City and enrolled in the M.F.A. program at New York University. He taught at City College and the Richard Allen Center for Cultural Arts while pursuing his studies. In 1983 he completed his master's degree in dramatic writing/musical theatre. His first musical Paradise, which was produced off-off Broadway in 1985 at the Playwrights Horizons, was not well received by the critics. His next play The Colored Museum was better received but controversial for some. It premiered at the Crossroads Theater in New Jersey in 1986. The play consists of eleven vignettes and offers an outrageous, satirical, and comical look at individuals in the black community who challenge some of black America's most cherished icons, such as Lorraine Hansberry's play A Raisin in the Sun and Eldridge Cleaver's Soul on Ice. Both black and white America are spoofed. The vignettes are driven by characters including a black woman who must choose between a Euro and an Afro hairpiece, a black transvestite, and a flight attendant who takes her passenger through a history lesson. Critics proclaimed Wolfe as a fresh new voice in the theater community, but others drew charges of reverse racism, and some blacks saw the work as anti-black. Wolfe stated his intent was the exorcism of black cultural myths. Amid the divergent responses, the theater community awarded Wolfe the Dramatists' Guild's Elizabeth Hull-Kate Warriner Award for the best play addressing a controversial political, social, or religious topic. Wolfe's talent also garnered admiration from Joseph Papp, the director of the New York Shakespeare Festival and Public Theater. Within a year the play was performed at the New York Public Theater and broadcast on public television as part of the Great Performances series.
The acclaim that Wolfe received for The Colored Museum opened new opportunities. Selected by Joseph Papp, Wolfe became resident director at the Public Theater in 1990. His most successful projects were Spunk (1990), which was a series of three vignettes adapted from short stories by Zora Neale Hurston, and The Caucasian Chalk Circle, an adaptation of a Brecht play done by Thulani Davis. Both works were well received. Spunk was praised as a powerful production full of irony and wit, and The Caucasian Chalk Circle was declared uplifting and exhilarating. Wolfe directed other works at the Public Theater and the Shakespeare Festival, but after the 1990s he set his sights on producing a musical for Broadway. Based on the life of Ferdinand Joseph LeMenthe "Jelly Roll" Morton, a 1920s New Orleans jazz musician, Wolfe wrote a musical and also directed the play as well. The musical Jelly's Last Jam features songs and tap dancing and addresses uncomfortable racial topics. The musical opened in Los Angeles in 1991 and moved to Broadway in 1992 with Gregory Hines in the lead role. The musical received six Drama Desk Awards and eleven Tony nominations. E. R. Shipp of Emerge magazine stated in 1993 that Wolfe is "the hope for the future of American theater … he [shows] theatergoers that so much that is referred to as black culture is really about being human." Wolfe earned national acclaim for this work.
Two years after his success with Jelly's Last Jam, Wolfe directed the first part of Pulitzer Prize winner Tony Kushner's two-part epic drama Angels in America: Millennium Approaches. The drama looks at gay Americans, AIDS, and politics. This three-and-a-half hour play opened in May 1993 and earned Wolfe a Tony Award for directing. All of Wolfe's previous works had involved African Americans, so not only was this Wolfe's first award directing a white play, but also the first time an African American received a Tony Award for directing a white play. Newsweek described Wolfe as "the perfect director for the play's ricochet rhythm between realism and fantasy." The second part of the drama, Perestroika, opened in December 1993. Wolfe's other awards include the Hull-Warriner Award, the George Oppenheimer/Newsday Award, the CBS/FDG New Play Award, the New York University Distinguished Alumni Award, the HBO/USA Playwrights Award, and the Callaway Award.
In 1993, before Angels in America opened, Wolfe was named by the board of directors of the New York Shakespeare Festival as the new artistic head of the festival and the Public Theater. With waning corporate support and declining revenues, Wolfe was viewed as an energetic, fresh voice for the festival. As well as managing the organization of the theater, Wolfe was responsible for the budget. In order to reach clientele and theatergoers beyond the traditional "uptown whites," Wolfe created a community affairs department. Its goal was to reach out to other communities and promote diversity in the performances and the audiences. In 1996 Wolfe created the musical Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk, which was presented at the Public Theater and then moved to Broadway. The play was an ensemble of tap and music, starring Savion Glover. Wolfe earned his second Tony and the Public Theater sponsored a national tour of the play. This was a new step for the organization, but the play was well received around the country and was ultimately a success.
- Born in Frankfort, Kentucky on September 23
- Sees first Broadway play, Hello Dolly starring Pearl Bailey
- Becomes regional winner twice for original plays at the American College Theatre Festival
- Receives B.A. in directing from Pomona College, Claremont, California
- Receives M.F.A. in dramatic writing/musical theatre from New York University
- Wins Dramatics' Guild Elizabeth Hull-Kate Warriner Award for critically acclaimed play The Colored Museum
- Receives eleven Tony nominations for musical Jelly's Last Jam
- Receives Tony Award for Angels in America (first half); named director of the New York Shakespeare Festival and Public Theater
- Receives second Tony Award for Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk
- Announces plans to leaves New York Shakespeare Festival and Public Theater; directs first film project Lackawanna Blues for HBO
In the late 1990s Wolfe suffered a serious illness caused by kidney failure. After a year on dialysis, Wolfe had an organ transplant which was donated by his older brother. He continued to work during his illness and directed plays such as Kushner's Caroline, or Changeand Suszan-Lori Parks' Pulitzer Prize winning play Topdog/Underdog. After more than ten years as artistic director, Wolfe decided in 2004 to leave the Public Theater and move in the direction of film. His first undertaking was Lackawanna Blues, a screen adaptation of Ruben Santiago-Hudson's semi-autobiographical play which was produced on HBO. The film received excellent reviews at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2005.
Johnson, Anne Janette. "George C. Wolfe." In Contemporary Black Biography. Vol. 6. Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research, 1994.
Andreeva, Nellie. "Wolfe staging 'Blues' for HBO." Hollywood Reporter 380 (30 September 2003): 3.
Keene, John. "George C. Wolfe: A Brief Biography." Callaloo 16 (Summer 1993): 593.
Kroll, Jack. "Angels in America: Millennium Approaches." Newsweek 121 (17 May 1993): 70.
Shipp, E. R. "George C. Wolfe." Emerge (November 1993): 63-66.
"George C. Wolfe." http://provost.syr.edu/lectures/wolfe.asp (Accessed 16 February 2006).
"George C. Wolfe." http://www.bridgesweb.com/blacktheatre/wolfe.html (Accessed 16 February 2006)
HBO Films. "Lackawannablues." http://www.hbo.com/films/lackawannablues/cast/george_c_wolfe.html (Accessed 16 February 2006).
Wolfe, George C. (b. 1954) http://www.glbtq.com/arts/wolfe_gc.html (Accessed 16 February 2006).
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