Wolfe is opening doors to theater of a new century

March 07, 1995|By Patrick Pacheco | Patrick Pacheco,Special to The 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."

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