Who's afraid of George C. Wolfe?
In his award-winning "The Colored Museum," which opens Wednesday at the Mark Taper Forum, the wiry 33-year-old playwright has taken on enough stereotypes--specifically black stereotypes--to leave white and black audiences outraged. Saddened. Confused. Amused. Embarrassed. Proud.
"You're dealing with images, and in some cases, they're very powerful," Wolfe said, during an interview at the Taper. "People have an emotional response to that. So when someone comes along and appears to mock it, it can be disturbing. You see an image and think you know what it's gonna be, then it turns around and becomes something else--and you're indicted by your pre-conditioned response, the prejudice you've attached to the image."
"Museum" features a series of vignettes satirizing black stereotypes that, Wolfe believes, are perpetuated by both blacks and whites. He points to the example of the image of "the fat black woman in a bandanna" that's been stripped of its identity and individuality and co-opted into a benign, one-dimensional Aunt Jemima. "My impulse is to disown that (representative symbol)," he admits. "But in fact, the cultural reality from which that figure grows is very powerful and very important.
"I remember when we were doing a play and the designer brought in this picture of Hattie McDaniel (from "Gone With the Wind")--the big skirt with the apron and the bandanna, all that stuff. Then I found a picture of a sharecropper from the 1880s and it was the exact same silhouette. The only difference was that the apron was knotted and textured. Hollywood had taken the texture out of (the image), the complexity. They kept the frame, the external--but took away the grit, the reflection of another time, another continent."
Wolfe refuses to accept the labels that white society historically attaches to the black race.
"Our culture is an ongoing process. Therefore, there is no ultimate definition. There is no 'this is what black is.' All the contradictions are what black is. But because of the complexity of our background, somebody can come along and say, 'If you do this you will be purely black.' 'If you do this, you will be purely white.' I think this is a mongrel society. We're always searching for some sort of pedigree, an image that confirms what we are. But it's always changing."
In spite of the strident social activism of his work, there is little of the "angry young man" evident in Wolfe himself. His manner is boyish and disarming; the words tumble out in a cheerful flurry.
"This play is fundamentally about confronting pain, the absolutely inherent pain of being in a subculture within a larger, dominant culture," he said. "I always knew I was part of something so fabulous and so incredible, so complex and so intense and so exhausting and so exhilarating. The culture was never a source of pain. It was other people's judgment of it."
Following its premiere at New Jersey's Crossroads Theatre, "Museum" scored big at New York's Public Theatre. It has since played London's Royal Court and York Theatres and is currently represented in 15 regional productions.
Wolfe grew up in Frankfurt, Ky., "which is no different than growing up any place else," he said. "It's just sort of dull and beautiful, and it was segregated while I was growing up--but after (I was) a certain age, it stopped being that. I'd gone to a private black school, then I went to a public white school. It was like the shock of my life. Part of it, sure, had to do with being a little fish in a big pond. But I was also a black little fish."
Sustaining him was an early self-confidence instilled by his great-grandmother and a first-grade teacher named Mrs. Boclair.
"In my childhood, there was this total sense of possibility," he said. "I would draw and make things, and my artistic expression was valued. I was treated as special. But the new school was horrifying. It was going from a protected environment into one that seemed very alien, very cold. And there was no Mrs. Boclair saying, 'Special, special.' " The psychic damage, he says, "is not like somebody firebombing your car. I'm talking about the war games that go on in your head when you know you're being dismissed."
Adulthood and success haven't wholly changed that. "After getting those rave reviews at the Public and receiving cheers," he said, "we'd go out of the theater and a cab wouldn't stop. It's going from, 'You're fabulous' to 'You don't exist.' The feeling? It's not even anger. It's rage. But I have a little saying for that: 'Pick up the rage, put it on the page.' "
An alumnus of New York University's writing program, Wolfe has written the libretto for Duke Ellington's jazz opera, "Queenie Pie" and the book for "Mr. Jellylord," both scheduled for Broadway this fall. His original career plans, he notes, were to be an actor and designer. "Then I became an actor-director doing some designing, then I became a director-writer. I don't know where this will end up. But I do feel like I'm growing."
The path to success hasn't been without roadblocks. "Museum" is Wolfe's 10th play. He recalls critical response to his previous play as " 'Yuck.' I went, 'Har-har-har/Pain-pain-pain.' But it didn't stop me from writing." As for the new expectations that come with a hit, "I sort of put that on a shelf and say, 'I'll think about you whenever.' And I really don't have time to build an altar to my success. I have to build an altar to neurosis and creativity in the '80s."