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A rich variety of work by African American theater artists is abundantly documented at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, available for anyone who chooses to explore it. Videos held by the Theatre on Film and Tape Archive (TOFT) — including hundreds of plays, musicals, and documentaries in which the Black experience in our country is examined from a wide range of perspectives — can be viewed by theater students, scholars, journalists and other professionals for research projects. And one name that recurs again and again in this material is that of George C. Wolfe: multi-talented playwright, stage and film director, and, for over a decade, artistic director of The Public Theater.
Born in Kentucky in 1954, Wolfe has from the beginning of his career shown a keen interest in Black identity and its portrayal on stage and screen. A longtime collector of folk art, Wolfe has been termed “a showman of folk expression” by critic John Lahr. Even a brief overview of highlights from his output (well documented by TOFT from the 1980s onward) reveals an eclectic assortment of dramas, musicals and dance pieces in which African American life is examined through his unique sensibility, one that combines elements of irony, indignation, and humor, in unconventional stage works that often defy easy categorization. As Wolfe once said: “I don’t want labels put on me or my culture, because my culture is too rich and too powerful, too magical and too full of madness to be that simply defined.”
Here’s a sampling from the TOFT collection of a few significant titles from Wolfe’s distinguished career, each of which examines diverse aspects of African American history.
Those interested in an overview of Wolfe’s early life might start with the 1996 episode of the PBS-TV series Signature. This program features excerpts from interviews with Wolfe, as well as family members, friends, and colleagues such as Tony Kushner, Gregory Hines, Thulani Davis, and Patrick Stewart, among others. Also included are performance clips from plays with which Wolfe is associated, such as Spunk, Jelly’s Last Jam, and the controversial opus that first brought him to wide attention, The Colored Museum.
First performed in 1986, The Colored Museum is a scathing satire composed of eleven sketches and monologs examining Black life in America, touching on stereotypes, role-playing, theatrical clichés, and related tropes. Some of the pieces are surreally funny while others are bleakly sad; at times, the playwright manages the tricky feat of being both comic and tragic simultaneously. Wolfe remarked during its premiere run that the ideal audience for his play is racially mixed, half black and half white, resulting in “a dangerous tension that has to resolve itself in laughter.” The Colored Museum is available from TOFT in an early staging taped in 1986 at the Crossroads Theatre of New Brunswick, New Jersey, as well as a more polished rendition recorded two years later at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.
Although Wolfe didn’t devise it alone, Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk, which premiered at The Public Theater in 1995 and transferred to Broadway the following year, nonetheless expresses his characteristic style. Created with several collaborators, including rap poet Reg E. Gaines, dancer Savion Glover, and composers Daryl Waters, Zane Mark, and Ann Duquesnay, this piece navigates some of the territory Wolfe explored earlier, albeit in a markedly different fashion.
Subtitled “a Tap/Rap Discourse on the Staying Power of the Beat,” Noise/Funk is primarily physical rather than verbal, although the exuberant dancing is supplemented throughout with rap and song. Like The Colored Museum, this piece explores the Black historical experience in America, starting with slavery, the terrible era of lynching, the Harlem Renaissance, and on to Hollywood, where African Americans are demeaned and their forms of expression are appropriated. In a bitterly funny sequence, a grinning black man called Uncle Huck-a-Buck tap dances with a puppet who resembles Shirley Temple. In the 1990s we find vestiges of racism expressed in subtler ways, as in a sequence where a trio of well-dressed Black professionals are each, in turn, unable to hail a cab.
In 2002 Wolfe renewed his working relationship with Daryl Waters and Zane Mark for Harlem Song, which played at the legendary Apollo Theatre on 125th Street. Conceived before but produced after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, this was a musical revue that celebrated the history and vibrant culture of Harlem, as well as the resilience of the community through good times and bad. In the traumatized post-9/11 environment resilience was emphasized, understandably. The show’s songs were a combination of popular favorites (such as Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the ‘A’ Train,” Sam Cooke’s “Shake,” etc.), and several newly composed numbers. Harlem Song, which utilized slides and film clips along with the live performers, was initially planned as an annual attraction, part of a larger civic effort to draw audiences to the Apollo — and tourists to Harlem — but the show proved to be less of a financial success than anticipated, and its premiere production, which ran for several months in 2002, proved to be its only staging. Shortly before it closed in December of that year, the show was videotaped for TOFT.
Wolfe stepped down as artistic director of The Public Theater in 2005, and has focused on personal projects ever since. Last year he returned to Broadway with Shuffle Along; or, the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921, and All That Followed. This unusual drama looks back at the phenomenally successful Jazz Age sensation Shuffle Along, an all-Black musical comedy which marked the debut of jazz on Broadway, and also introduced such pop standards as “I’m Just Wild About Harry.” Rather than revive or rework the original show, Wolfe chose to create a new libretto that explores the backstage tensions amongst members of the show’s creative team, placing this drama within the larger context of African American endeavor in an overwhelmingly white show business world. Wolfe’s play was greeted with largely positive reviews, but its run was cut short by the unexpected departure of star Audra McDonald due to parental leave, which caused producers to close the show earlier than anticipated.
As noted above, this is only a sampling of George C. Wolfe’s output as represented in the Theatre on Film and Tape Archive. In his versatility, energy, productivity and seemingly boundless imagination, Wolfe is one of the key figures who embodies the best of what the theater of our time has to offer. —BroadwayWorld & The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts