Wolfe is opening doors to theater of a new century

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Director George C. Wolfe has often used doors as a central symbol in his productions, and "Jelly's Last Jam" is a case in point. In his 1991 Broadway musical about Jelly Roll Morton, Mr. Wolfe used an upstage door through which characters emerged to tell the bitter story of the African-American legend who claimed to have been the founder of jazz.

"You know, there wasn't a door in 'Jelly's' when I did it in L.A.," said Mr. Wolfe, referring to the production he wrote and directed there before Broadway. That changed after he visited Senegal and saw an old door there, what remained of an embarkation point from which Africans were shipped to America to be sold as slaves.

"And the thought hit me," Mr. Wolfe recalled. "On one side of that door, these people were their own definition. But once they went through that door, they became all other people's definitions -- slave, nigger, coon, African-American. There is always a desire but one can never ever go back through that door. That is the story of Jelly Roll Morton. And it's really the story of America, whether you're talking about the pilgrims or the Irish or the Italians or Latinos or whoever. Theater must serve to open the door on those experiences."

Now that "Jelly's Last Jam" is on national tour, Baltimore audiences will have a chance to see Mr. Wolfe's stylization of one man's life on the other side of that door. The production opens tonight at the Lyric Opera House and plays through Sunday.

For Mr. Wolfe, capturing those stories of America has taken on an even greater urgency since he himself first went through the revolving doors of the New York Shakespeare Festival's Public Theater in 1987 with his play "The Colored Museum," a satire of black stereotypes, and emerged as one of the hottest young talents in American theater.

Then, Mr. Wolfe was just the new kid on the block, a comer who was to score big on Broadway four years later with the musical "Jelly's Last Jam." He followed that triumph with Tony Kushner's acclaimed "Angels in America," which brought him a directing Tony Award in 1992. Now he has an even wider canvas on which to sketch his multicultural vision. In 1992, he was named to head the Public Theater, the cavernous five-theater complex that is the flagship of the New York Shakespeare Festival.

To say Mr. Wolfe, 40, has a full schedule is a gross understatement. Not only has he been busy getting the Public back on its feet, he has also cast and directed the road production of "Jelly's Last Jam."

The pressures on Mr. Wolfe at the Public are magnified because the theater has become one of the most influential and powerful forces in American theater since its founding in a church basement 40 years ago. Under the charismatic leadership of its founder, Joseph Papp, it produced acclaimed musicals ("Hair," "Two Gentlemen of Verona," "Pirates of Penzance" and "A Chorus Line") and nurtured the careers of playwrights (Sam Shepard, David Rabe, David Hare) and actors (Raul Julia, Kevin Kline, Meryl Streep). That's not to mention its current mission to produce the entire 40-play Shakespeare canon.

Mr. Wolfe's third season, though it has generated excitement and a record number of new subscribers, has so far met with disappointing reviews. Critics blasted veteran Harold Prince's musical directing debut at the Public, "The Petrified Prince," actor Christopher Walken's "Him" and "The Merchant of Venice," starring Ron Leibman. Reviews were somewhat better for Mr. Shepard's "Simpatico" and the one-person shows of Danny Hoch and Jenifer Lewis.

The Public has one overriding mandate, according to Mr. Wolfe. "Theater should address the stories of its communities or I don't know why it's here," he says. "I want to create a theater that looks, feels and smells like America."

Dressed in khakis and a sport shirt, Mr. Wolfe is a curious mixture of aggression and shyness. Sitting in his modest office at the Public, he is a torrent of ideas, images and concepts occasionally interrupted with a sharp laugh. He can talk as easily about the film "Valley of the Dolls" as about German Expressionist theater. And he appears to integrate all the emotional complications of a gay black man who grew up in segregation, achieved a cult following in inner-city Los Angeles and catapulted to fame as the first African-American director of a Broadway production that was not black-themed ("Angels in America").

Producer Margo Lion, a Baltimore native who produced both "Jelly's Last Jam" and "Angels in America," believes Mr. Wolfe is the man to lead theater into the 21st century.

"He wants to thrill"

"George brings a contemporary sensibility in terms of both his interests and his artistry," she said. "He's not somebody who wants to preach. He wants to thrill an audience, to provoke it, to stimulate it. And he does that quite bravely and daringly."

Indeed, Mr. Wolfe has rarely shied at facing down the powers that be when he feels his artistic integrity is at stake. When he was directing "Jelly's Last Jam," he refused to accept pressure from the cast to tame some of the more negative and harsh aspects in the musical. In it, he unflinchingly examined Jelly Roll Morton's self-hatred even as the musician drew on his African heritage to create some great music.

"There are a lot of people who will tell you I'm very ruthless," says Mr. Wolfe. "I'm very fierce. If I feel I'm right, if I feel I've been violated, then I am like a warrior from hell!"

That gladiatorial spirit was around long before Mr. Wolfe was tapped to bring direction and vision to the Public. The director's two-fisted populism was forged early on as one of four children born to a state government clerk and his wife, a grammar-school teacher and principal in Frankfort, Ky. But it is his maternal grandmother, Addie President, whose portrait now holds a place of honor in his SoHo apartment.

"My grandmother made me feel safe as a human being," he says. "I rarely left that world until I was 13 or 14, so I grew up with no concept of racial inferiority."

Addie President's "pit-bull" energy, however, could not protect her grandson from the trauma of segregation.

The symbolism of the door in his productions becomes clear when he considers the one closed to him in his youth: the door of the Capitol Theatre in Frankfort. It was, says Mr. Wolfe, "the defining event" in his relationship to the world.

"I don't know what made a 7-year-old kid so threatening to the spiritual and moral fiber of the Capitol Theatre, but I've spent an entire life making sure that I got into any place I wanted to get into," he says.

His mission as "integration warrior," as he describes it, started at Pomona College, where he studied theater -- his ambition having been galvanized at 13 when his mother took him to New York and he saw "West Side Story" and "Hello, Dolly!"

Social, political purpose

His three years at Los Angeles' Inner City Cultural Center taught him that theater could serve a social and political purpose, and his world expanded to include Asians, gays and Latinos he met there. It was at this time, also, that he was "coming out" as a gay man.

The sense of being Other and being claimed at the same time has given Mr. Wolfe the confidence to test the boundaries of tolerance, which he did first with "The Colored Museum."

The director's "warrior energy" may have been tempered by his experiences of late: the mixed critical notices for productions at the Public and the commercial failure of Baltimore-born Anna Deavere Smith's "Twilight" on Broadway (which he first presented at the Public). Yet it appears that he is always going at full throttle.

"The biggest problem with this job is that it never stops," says Mr. Wolfe. "People respond to the theater in the most personal way. It's like a marriage between you and them, and God help you if you let them down."

That doesn't leave him much time for himself, as is certainly clear from the events surrounding his turning 40. That same week in October, three things happened in rapid succession: a friend died of AIDS; a memorial service was held at the Public for Danita Vance, an actress and close friend who'd been in "The Colored Museum"; and, at a board meeting, a donor pledged a very generous gift.

Suddenly, says Mr. Wolfe, pressures and ambitions were put into proper perspective.

"You just keep going. Sometimes it rains, sometimes the sun shines. I wasn't allowed the pure and extraordinary luxury of dealing with the emotion of it all. The stuff kept swirling around. And it will continue with or without you."

"JELLY'S LAST JAM"

Where: Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Sunday, with matinees at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

Tickets: $20-$35

Call: (410) 494-2712

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
79°