So much more than 'Noise'

CATCHING UP WITH ... GEORGE C. WOLFE

George C. Wolfe, who has heard many accolades for his theater work, may now be listening for a quieter thing -- his own voice.

February 21, 1999|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,sun theater critic

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.

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