George C. Wolfe, playwright, director and producer of the prestigious New York Shakespeare Festival, gravitates toward the things that scare him. "It's fun to sometimes dive off a cliff and see where you're going to land," Wolfe, 44, explained from his New York office last week.
If you're Wolfe, you usually land on your feet -- and get showered with laurels.
"As acclaimed as a theater director can get," the Chicago Sun-Times has said. "Without question the most innovative producer and director staging work on or off Broadway," according to Essence magazine. "American theater's most powerful human being," proclaimed the Dallas Morning News.
Wolfe's peers can be equally effusive. "George is a phenomenon. ... He's a force of nature. He's extraordinarily creative," says playwright/performer Anna Deavere Smith -- whose show, "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992," was directed by Wolfe at the Shakespeare Festival's Joseph Papp Public Theater and on Broadway.
"The most important theater artist of my generation" is the way he's been described by Tony Kushner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Angels in America." Directing Kushner's two-part opus made Wolfe a trailblazer -- the first black director of a major Broadway play not about blacks.
Wolfe has also racked up his share of awards, everything from being declared "a living landmark" by the New York Landmarks Conservatory to Tony Awards for his direction of Part One of "Angels in America" and of "Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk," the 1996 Broadway musical that uses tap dancing as a metaphor to chronicle African-American his-tory.
The touring production of "Noise/Funk," as the musical is nicknamed, arrives at the Mechanic Theatre March 2. Wolfe has dived off a number of cliffs since he conceived the show more than 3 1/2 years ago, but he's still eager to talk about it -- even if it means briefly pushing aside his administrative duties at the festival as well as his work on a new musical.
Wolfe wastes no time when he talks, speaking rapid-fire, and frequently interrupting his own staccato sentences. For instance, this is how he describes creating "Noise/Funk" at a three-week 1995 workshop:
"It was almost like a laboratory. Dancers would be doing one thing; the music department existed; and there was a research team. Reg E. Gaines, [author of the show's book], was in one corner working on the text -- all at the same time, in the same room, but everybody was working on different things. ... One thing ignited another, ignited another, ignited another, ... the whole thing happening on an incredibly, on a very subliminal level, but because there was so much trust in the room, everything flowed."
The process, he explains, was entirely different from his previous project -- directing Shakespeare's "The Tempest." "I like to go into an opposite experience right afterwards. You keep on accessing different muscles," he says of "Noise/Funk," whose title was coined by tap dancer Savion Glover, the musical's choreographer and original star.
While the process may have been new, however, the notion of using tap dancing to convey complex emotions, ideas and character was something Wolfe had tried before, in the 1992 Broadway musical "Jelly's Last Jam."
Based on the life of Jelly Roll Morton, the musical was Wolfe's Broadway debut as director and librettist. In the words of former New York Times critic Frank Rich, " 'Jelly's Last Jam' said if we're going to have tap dancing, then we're going to deal with real issues of racial integrity, injustices in show business and ... at the same time, try to give you some entertainment."
Mixing entertainment, edification and a bit of bleakness is a Wolfe trademark that surfaced as early as 1986 in his play "The Colored Museum," a satire of black stereotypes that brought him national prominence. (It was produced at Center Stage in 1987.)
"I love dropping little bread crumbs of delight as people go down that dark alley," Wolfe says of his approach. "The more complicated emotions you experience during the course of an evening, the more rewarding an evening it is, provided you come out on the other side with a sense that life is ever- affirming."
Margo Lion, the Broadway producer who hired Wolfe for both "Jelly's Last Jam" and "Angels in America," remembers seeing "The Colored Museum" at the Public Theater and being struck by Wolfe's ability to take risks and entertain at the same time. "I thought, boy, this is a really startling, original mind," she recalls. "He dared to go into territory that others have not dared venture into. His work had that signature energy and contemporary sensibility and at the same time [was] a lot of fun."
Wolfe's insistence on including a positive, affirmative note in his productions reflects his attitude toward his personal life, which has involved more than a few recent leaps from the precipice.
In December 1996, his mother died of heart disease. The following March, a fire in his Greenwich Village house destroyed almost all his possessions. Two months later, he was diagnosed with kidney failure, undergoing almost a year of dialysis before receiving a kidney, donated by his older brother.
This confluence of life-changing events might have toppled a lesser spirit, but the Frankfort, Ky., native says he refused to see them as an accumulation of hardships. "If you count them -- let me go into a room and hide and never come out. I never thought of it that way. Everything is leading you in a direction, and you just try to figure out what that direction is," he says.
"When my mother was very ill and dying, I was moving 'The Tempest' to Broadway and creating 'Noise/Funk' at the same time. I was placing all my energy and emotion in a safe place, while psychologically I was aware these transformations were taking place in my personal world."
The main lesson he has learned from surviving kidney failure is that he wants to get back to writing. "In the recovery process, where I had time with myself, it's like, oh, I miss that voice. I miss my own voice. That's artistically rekindled," he explains.
The rekindling has taken the form of writing the book for a new musical, "The Wild Party," based on a 1920s poem by Joseph Moncure March. "It's about the end of an era and of a certain kind of world. It's very raw and very sexual and has rough edges and at the same time a certain kind of romance to it," Wolfe says. The show, which has a score by the promising composer/lyricist Michael John LaChiusa, is expected to premiere at the Public later this season.
With his increased interest in writing, it's easy to wonder how long Wolfe will choose to lead the New York Shakespeare Festival, a post he assumed in 1993, after its brief, turbulent period under the leadership of director JoAnne Akalaitis.
"Taking over the Public was the hardest thing I've ever done. It was an institution in a very complicated state -- states -- a very complicated place, very, very rough," he says.
More than a year and a half into his tenure, he replied to the question, "Are you having fun yet?" by saying, "Hell, no."
Four years later, however, Wolfe responds: "I've had fun. There are aspects of the job that I enjoy tremendously. There are aspects I don't enjoy at all. I love being able to say to artists, 'Here's some money. Here's the room. Have some fun.' There's a certain kind of fulfillment in that."
Beyond that, the prominent head of America's most prominent theatrical institution still seems to be mulling over what's next. "I've been here for a while now. It's like the institution is very healthy right now. I took the job because at one point I was feeling this dynamic inside myself of moving toward a position where I could allow other people to do their art," Wolfe says. "I have a feeling, a need, right now to be a writer. I'm figuring out what kind of structure I need inside myself in order to make that happen."
Bringing it in
What: "Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk"
When: March 2-7. 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; matinees at 2 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday
Where: Mechanic Theatre, 25 Hopkins Plaza
Pub Date: 02/21/99