COVER STORY : The Wolfe at the (Stage) Door : With a hunger for shattering myths, playwright/director George C. Wolfe applies his provocative style to jazz legend Jelly Roll Morton
Anyone familiar with George C. Wolfe’s satire, “The Colored Museum,” might be surprised to discover that the playwright has written his new play--"Jelly’s Last Jam,” a musical about the early 20th-Century jazz musician Jelly Roll Morton--with the words “Honor the Source” taped over his computer.
Wolfe’s “Museum” savaged several popular myths and figures from black American culture, including fellow playwrights Ntozake Shange and Lorraine Hansberry, the author of “A Raisin in the Sun.” Indeed, when “The Colored Museum” opened Off Broadway four years ago, several members of New York’s black community accused the playwright of racism. As Newsweek’s Jack Kroll wrote, Wolfe had “dared to laugh, not at Whitey, but at black sacred cows.”
That play, subsequently performed in London and at Los Angeles’ Mark Taper Forum (and televised on PBS’s “Great Performances” series last month), launched Wolfe--then a virtually unknown writer whose earlier works had not focused on ethnic issues--into national prominence.
“George was speaking of issues that generally have been swept under the carpet,” says Rick Khan, artistic director of New Jersey’s Crossroads Theater, which originated “The Colored Museum” and is one of the country’s leading producers of black theatrical works. “There were people who were offended by his challenging of certain Afro-American mainstays, but that’s not racism, that’s revolutionary.”
Since then the playwright has become one of the leaders of a new generation of writers in the American theater--one whose work raises provocative questions about racial culture, history and identity.
It is a position that the 36-year-old playwright has attained with a remarkably small body of work--"The Colored Museum” and “Spunk,” Wolfe’s adaptation of stories by Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston, which was initially developed at the Taper in 1989. Last spring, Wolfe was one of three young theater artists tapped by Joseph Papp, producer of New York’s Shakespeare Theater Festival, to become a resident director at the Festival’s Public Theater. It is a highly visible post at one of the country’s most influential theaters--a position that Wolfe describes as being “the Negro at the Public.”
Such insouciance in both his personal attitudes and professional accomplishments has led to Wolfe’s reputation as the Spike Lee of theater, a talented auteur whose controversial art exposes and explodes sacrosanct images of black--and white--America. “The Colored Museum” was one of the few contemporary black plays produced at regional theaters in recent years--a marked departure from the period African-American musicals and history plays more frequently staged.
Some observers say Wolfe’s emphasis on contemporary cultural issues, his use of irony and non-naturalistic Japanese theater techniques in his work is expanding the thematic and stylistic terrain established by dramatist August Wilson, the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author who is regarded as the country’s leading black playwright.
“George is not impartial,” says Joseph Papp. “He’s a black man and a radical who uses irony as his weapon. He is not folksy the way August Wilson is, nor does he write literally about social conditions like poverty. He is addressing the middle classes and the more negative things that blacks have had to do to survive there.”
Gordon Davidson, artistic director of the Mark Taper Forum, which is producing “Jelly’s Last Jam” (opening Thursday), says the playwright “is a fantastic who deals in fantasy and dreams. George is not afraid to question who he is socially and culturally and he puts those questions in his work.”
Wolfe suggests that his work is part of a shifting definition of acceptable black American artistry. “Since Spike Lee and Robert Townsend, the landscape has broadened,” says Wolfe. “I think ‘Colored Museum’ was part of that change. It shattered a certain amount of programmed response on the part of black and white audiences. It said you can now be outrageous and simultaneously you can celebrate--a celebration of the human spirit that allows you to see past the silhouette that maybe used to frighten and horrify.”
Ironically, Wolfe is now turning his idiosyncratic talents to one of the cultural expressions he parodied in “The Colored Museum"--the black musical. Written and directed by Wolfe, “Jelly’s Last Jam” is a jazz biography of Jelly Roll Morton (born Ferdinand La Menthe in 1885)--the colorful New Orleans composer and musician who wore a diamond filling in his front tooth and boasted he was the founder of American jazz, but who was regarded in musical circles as part genius, part charlatan.
On the one hand, the production can be considered Wolfe’s most ambitious work to date, involving 19 cast members, a budget of nearly $1 million (divided between the Taper and the New York producers Margo Lion and Pamela Koslow-Hines) with an anticipated transfer to New York later this year. It is also possibly the largest black American musical since “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “Eubie” and “Sophisticated Ladies” populated Broadway in the late 1970s.
On the other hand, “Jelly’s Last Jam’ is a departure from Wolfe’s earlier, more satirical concerns voiced in “The Colored Museum.” Part of the explanation lies in Wolfe’s history with the project. He was hired by the producers in 1987 to write the book for the musical, originally titled “Mr. Jellylord,” after two earlier writers--including August Wilson, parted company with the producers over artistic differences.
However much of a risk Wolfe may be running in reinforcing ethnic stereotypes with “Jelly’s Last Jam,” he says he is attempting to create a musical that is less a toe-tapping retrospective of black American music similar to earlier revues, than it is a moral fable about “the black heritage that Jelly did not acknowledge,” as the playwright puts it. Morton, whom scholars agree was the first true jazz composer, one who expanded the narrow emotional vocabulary of ragtime with an infusion of the blues and Latin rhythms, was a middle-class New Orleans Creole who denied his black American ancestry.
“Jelly was a very gifted musician in a time in this country when racism was very pronounced,” says Wolfe. “His whole approach seemed to be, ‘If I decide I’m not black, then maybe I won’t be treated like a black.’ (The show) is about how we all use our vanity to cover up our fear, to make ourselves invulnerable. But if you create something extraordinary--and Jelly Roll did--you come from a place, a context,” says Wolfe “and you must honor that in some way. You must honor the source.”
It is an acknowledgement of the past that the playwright says has its roots in his own life. “There are secrets of survival that have been passed on to me, that have given me a sense of arrogance, that I have a right to certain opportunities that a whole lot of people had to fight to get,” he says. “So I have to figure out ways to celebrate those people that cleared the resistance so I can come along and be fabulous and not be a raving maniac. One of the ways that I do that is by writing.”
“We are selling our snake oil--not drinking it!” Wolfe hollers at his cast assembled in one of the Taper’s rehearsal rooms. “And I don’t want this so presentational,” he says waving his hands in the air. “Turn in on yourselves more. I need more confusion.”
On this late winter morning, Wolfe is blocking one of the production’s early scenes in which the young Jelly Roll ventures beyond his family’s middle-class confines to discover the fecund cultural world of New Orleans’ fabled Storyville district. In a previous scene, the actors played members of the city’s white collar gentry and held gilded picture frames around their faces and sang to classical musical strains. Now, they are bearing pots and pans and wearing rags and roots, playing snake oil salesmen in “that world beyond those parlor walls . . . a whole world waiting to sing your song,” as their lyrics explain.
“Ancestors, where are you?” Wolfe calls to a group of off-stage actors. “OK,” he says, turning to the ensemble, “if there are some dead spaces here, we’ll just figure it out later.”
In his gold wire rimmed glasses, fuchsia T-shirt and turquoise socks and signature ponytail that he constantly undoes and redoes, Wolfe is something of a totem for the iconoclastic, energetic theatrical style he pursues on stage. His artistic intent in all his work, he says, is to bridge emotional naturalism with a highly theatrical style. “When it is heightened it has a power that demands you to surrender to it,” says Wolfe. “If I hit it straight on, it’s too easy for the audience to say, ‘That doesn’t look like me.’ ”
The playwright’s acclaimed adaptation of “Caucasian Chalk Circle,” staged in New York last fall as the kick-off production of his season at the Public Theater, used masks, puppets, Caribbean dance techniques and on-stage musicians to update Brecht’s classic political fable from Soviet Georgia to Papa Doc’s Haiti--an exploration of “the process of colonialism” according to Wolfe that New York Times critic David Richards called “a phantasmagorical bal masque.”
In “Jelly’s Last Jam,” Wolfe is using a similar grab-bag of techniques to create a highly stylized musical that “is not (Morton’s) life story but about his personality,” he says during a break in the rehearsal. “And the contents of his soul dictate the presentations. Jelly’s culture, his language, his rhythms, his arrogance, even the way he dressed was black American,” says Wolfe, who then quotes a favorite line from the production: “He drinks from the vine of syncopation but denies the black soil from which he was born.”
Margo Lion, one of the show’s New York producers who had owned the rights to Morton’s music since 1985 and had intended to feature Gregory Hines in the lead role, said Wolfe’s “sensibilities were exactly right for this material. I had seen his ‘Colored Museum,’ and I wasn’t looking for a realistic biography for this musical, but something more expressionistic,” Lion said.
Wolfe’s only previous musical experience had been working as a rewrite man on “Queenie Pie,” the short-lived 1988 Duke Ellington musical. For this project, he assembled a creative team that includes Susan Birkenhead, the lyricist on that earlier project, choreographer Hope Clarke, who had worked on “Caucasian Chalk Circle,” and Luther Henderson, who did the musical adaptations for “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” Obba Babatunde, the actor and singer who won a Tony nomination for his role in the 1981 musical “Dreamgirls,” plays Jelly Roll.
“It’s easy to fall into the trap of saying this guy was so cocky and obnoxious,” says Babatunde about Morton, whose seminal Red Hot Peppers was a popular 1920s band, but who also worked as a pimp and a cardsharp and who died in poverty and disrepute in Los Angeles in 1941. “But he really believed what he was saying--that he invented jazz and that he was the hottest lover around. This production is about that man, not just a musical whose story is secondary to the performance aspect. This deals with the intricacies of his life, his denials of who he was.”
Exploring that theme of appearance and reality, culture and individuality, Wolfe wrote “Jelly’s Last Jam” with two protagonists--Jelly Roll Morton and a fictitious alter-ego, the Chimney Man, played by actor Keith David. The play’s action, which is set on the last day of Morton’s life, is a fable along the lines of “the Ghost of Christmas Past and a really horrible rendition of ‘This Is Your Life,’ ” says Wolfe. “The Chimney Man is the physical manifestation of the truths and powers that are buried in Jelly. And the musical is a showdown of those equal but different powers that have their own style. Jelly’s style is sort of like dazzling cheap theatrics and Chimney Man’s is sort of the darkness that surrounds that. One pleases in the moment, the other is more absolute.”
It is also a character who functions as an on-stage narrator, a device that Wolfe has used before as a theatrical convention and as a way “to find my way into the piece, allow my voice to live in it,” he says. “Am I supposed to pretend the audience isn’t there? No, I acknowledge you. Every institution I was ever a part of--the church, school--there is a leader and the choir; the giver of the information and the people who receive it.”
Wolfe is calling on other cultural traditions in his musical’s finale, where Morton “finds redemption by dancing the bamboola,” a dance style long popular in New Orleans--a city which Wolfe says “had very pronounced African traditions, one of the few cities in the country where the slaves were allowed to keep their drums.” Dancing the bamboola, says Wolfe is “Jelly’s ultimate acknowledgement of those African origins that are floating inside him, a coming to terms with who he really was.”
Wolfe was born in the mid-1950s, the third of four children of a middle-class family in Frankfort, Ky. His mother was the principal of a private black elementary school, his father was in government--"a very insular world,” recalls Wolfe, who was something of a bookworm as a child. “There were white people, but I didn’t feel they had any severe impact on me. The church was all black, the grade school was all black. I knew I couldn’t go down to the local movie theater and see ‘101 Dalmatians,’ but it was a nice and polite little world.”
His interest in the theater had its roots in his own family dynamic--"I was this very precious spoiled child who had been groomed from day one to conquer,” he says with a laugh-- as well as his desire “not to be invisible . . . I stuttered when I was a child and that caused a lot of teachers to initially think I was stupid,” says Wolfe, who joined a theater workshop as “a way to regain my confidence.”
By the time he was in high school he had seen his first professional theater production--"Hello, Dolly!” on Broadway--and was determined to become an actor.
He attended Kentucky State University, his parents’ alma mater, for one year before dropping out to head to Claremont College in California. “My whole family had gone to Kentucky (State). It was an all-black university and I finally said, ‘No, no, no. It is time to get out of here. It is time to escape.” He studied acting and directing and eventually settled in Los Angeles after graduation where he wrote and directed plays--mostly non-naturalistic mythic dramas that did not directly address contemporary ethnic issues. He worked primarily at the Inner City Cultural Center, earning a handful of good reviews and some local theater awards. But, as Wolfe recalls, “The goal of success in L.A. was not theater, but movies and TV and I knew that wasn’t right for me then.”
By 1979, he had moved to New York. He taught at City College and enrolled in a masters program at New York University. While there, he wrote one play, “Paradise"--which was presented Off Off Broadway at Playwrights Horizons in 1985. That production, a musical about a family that escapes to an island, was largely savaged by area critics. Wolfe says he began working on “The Colored Museum” as a personal “exorcism” of cultural myths. The Crossroads Theater in New Jersey picked up “The Colored Museum,” in 1986 under the auspices of the CBS/Foundation for the Dramatist Guild New Play Program.
“We had gotten 600 to 1,000 scripts and it was very clear that George was going to be our first choice,” says the Crossroads Theater’s Khan. “ ‘The Colored Museum’ was extraordinary in its form and style and courage and boldness. George just said ‘no’ to a lot of the myths that blacks had built up around them. It was a courageous and fresh voice, not just a new play, but a new voice.”
The success of that work led to Wolfe being tapped by the producers of “Queenie Pie.” Then came the Off-Broadway transfer of “The Colored Museum” to the Public Theater. That opening in 1987 thrust Wolfe into a controversy about reverse racism.
Wolfe recalls the reception to that work as mixed. “When it opened, the self-appointed black crowd said, ‘This is horrifying. This is horrifying. I can’t believe he is actually saying that. Blah, blah, blah. Da, da, da,” says Wolfe in his typically energetic fashion. “And that was painful. Because that was exactly the place where I was coming from. . . . All the whites went into programmed guilt and the black people went into programmed rage and the play kept saying ‘You can’t do that.’ It was really a play about self-empowerment. About how I am now going to define myself the way that I am capable of.”
It was also a play that “shattered a certain amount of that programmed response,” says Wolfe, and led him to adapt Hurston’s stories of the rural South in “Spunk.” Wolfe staged the playwright’s critically acclaimed trio of one-act plays with intentionally stylized realism--"Very Southern and rural where the characters say ‘dis’ and ‘dat,’ ” according to the director, who says his intent was to create a theatrical style “that allowed you to see past that old Southern silhouette to see what is really going on.”
Now, Wolfe has created his most abstract theatrical landscape yet in “Jelly’s Last Jam,” staging his fabulist’s tale in “that place between heaven and hell--sort of like L.A.,” says Wolfe with a laugh. “You sort of have more permission here,” he says. “In New York, it’s more about learning the rules, you have to knock something down before you get permission to do anything risky. “
After the musical opens in Los Angeles this week, Wolfe sprints back to New York to finish his new play, “Black-Out,” for his final production of the season at the Public. A quasi-"Bonfire of the Vanities” look at New York, Wolfe describes it as “this collage about people of power who suddenly have no power, and where the people without power have power--sort of like wolves howling in the night and the city is no longer functioning.
“This is the most evolved position of where I’ve been, sort of the end of a whole vocabulary and style,” he continues. “And I think my agenda is evolving. Somehow I feel I have to go on to a more epic level or a more intimate one and I’m not sure which it will be. I either have to explore a larger world or go back to Kentucky. If I’m going to continue to explore black culture I have to do it in a larger context, in the framework of the world culture.”
Not surprisingly, Wolfe is at work on a screenplay. “I love the theater,” he says, “and if we were living in a time when everyone went to the theater, I would exclusively do theater. But we don’t. So I have to explore other mediums. Also, theater is about ideas and they can be abstract and some of the stories I want to tell, the more realistic ones, would be better suited to film.”
He also says that he wants to use his role at the Public to showcase the work of other black American writers and that he hopes to stage a festival of one-act plays and solo performances in New York later this spring. “Being ‘The Negro at the Public’ is its own form of isolation,” says Wolfe. “And I’m really concerned with how I can share what I have. I know when I was trying to get my work done early on, I was considered the flavor-of-the-day. But I am not the only voice of color, the tapestry is more complicated than that. If I have a show going on and August Wilson has something going on and somebody else has something going on and somebody else has something going on, then the complexion and complexity that is America begins to manifest itself.
“One thing I really feel art can do is challenge perceptions,” he adds. “People may just go ‘Oh,’ and then walk out the door. But at least for a moment they’ve said, ‘That’s interesting.’ If they don’t incorporate that into their life, well that’s their responsibility. But if you can offer people another way to view themselves, that’s valuable.”