Invading White Institutions: The Prolific Work of George C. Wolfe 

Born and raised in Frankfort, Kentucky, George Costello Wolfe was in love with theater from the beginning. "I was always creating scenarios, creating plays, and anytime I did a play with my friends I was never in them; I was always telling them the scenario and having them act it out. So it was always theater." Wolfe pursued a minor in theater at Kentucky State University for a year, but then chose to leave the state to attend Pomona College, which had a more expansive theater program. His time at Pomona was formative for his artistic sensibilities, because "in the early seventies... they would aim to not tell you what theater was but to ask the question, what is theater?,” Wolfe reflected. “To be in a space where form was constantly violated was really quite exhilarating for me."  

Inspired by what he was learning at Pomona, Wolfe wrote and directed his first play, Up For Grabs, in 1975, winning the American College Theater Festival (ACTF) for playwriting in the Pacific Southern Region; he won a second ACTF award for Block Party in 1976. He graduated with a BA in directing and chose to remain in California to work at LA's Inner-City Cultural Center while he continued to write. "I remember once when I gave Jack [Jackson, founder of the Cultural Center] one scene and a synopsis that was written on an envelope and he gave me about $600 and he said to go do it." Wolfe continued to create his own work and taught at California State University during his time on the West Coast.  

After three years working and writing in LA, Wolfe moved to New York and, in his words, "spent about three or four years in total obscurity and poverty just trying to get my work done." He enrolled in the MFA program in Dramatic Writing/Musical Theater at NYU. From the program, he met various members of Playwrights Horizons, which led to the premiere of his musical Paradise at the theater. According to Wolfe, "[i]t got bombed: destroyed completely and totally." But the attention that accompanied the production proved useful: it gave Wolfe the opportunity to pitch a new play to the then-Artistic Director of Crossroads Theatre in New Jersey, Lee Richardson.  

Thus, The Colored Museum was born. It premiered at the Crossroads Theatre in 1986 and was performed at the Public Theater in the same year. He and his work were admired by Joseph Papp, founder of the Public, and so Wolfe became a resident director at the Public in 1990. He continued to write and direct; notable projects included the 1990 plays Spunk, three vignettes based on the work of Zora Neale Hurston, and The Caucasian Chalk Circle, an adaptation of the Brecht play of the same name.  

Wolfe continued to write, but Spunk and The Colored Museum remain some of his most notable plays to this day. "[W]orking on The Colored Museum and Spunk was, in many respects, trying to reclaim the silhouette"—or reexamine and reappropriate archetypes that had been co-opted by white culture—and then flesh out within my work a blend of spiritual, emotional and intellectual aesthetics." His radical choices in playwriting did not, however, lead to universal critical success. For The Colored Museum, Wolfe says, "[t]he critics were white. So they got 'the new voice.' 'Outrageous and biting sense of humor cuts through.' That's all they got." Black critics, however, "were offended.... A lot of the time it was very startling to them because many of the plays that had been done had not dared to self-examine."  

In 1991, Wolfe's musical Jelly's Last Jam opened in Los Angeles, and moved to Broadway the following year. The success of the musical was followed by the production Wolfe may be most recognized for: Angels In America: Millennium Approaches by Tony Kushner at the Walter Kerr Theater in 1993. Wolfe recounts that when it was known that he would be directing its Broadway production, "[s]omeone said to me, 'I just want to let you know, everyone thinks the play is brilliant, so if the production doesn't work it is all going to be blamed on you.'"  

The play was, of course, a tremendous success, and it earned Wolfe a Tony Award in direction among several other commendations. In the same year, Wolfe was named the artistic head of the New York Shakespeare Festival and the Public Theater. These events reshaped the public perception of Wolfe. "Prior to Angels in America, if I walked to the corner and threw away a banana peel, it would be ‘George Wolfe, Black Director.’ Since Angels in America and the Public Theater, I am no longer discussed as being Black in the press.”  

Wolfe has continued to write and direct major works. In 1996, he created Bring In 'Da Noise, Bring In 'Da Funk, winning a second Tony Award in direction; he co-created the Broadway musical The Wild Party in 2000; he directed Suzan-Lori Parks's Pulitzer Prize-winning play Topdog/Underdog in 2001; he directed the 2003 musical by Tony Kushner, Caroline, Or Change; and he co-created the 2016 musical Shuffle Along, or, the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed. He has also directed several prominent films, including Lackawanna Blues  (2005), The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks  (2017), and Ma Rainey's Black Bottom  (2020).  

It is a testament to the expansive brilliance of Wolfe's career that he is so well-known for his writing, directing, and producing; and in each of these disciplines, as he describes himself, being “an integration warrior…. I was part of that generation that was trained to invade and I was trained to invade white institutions.” Wolfe continues to bring these radical values to his work, inviting new generations of artists to join him so that they can “find a safe place to do their work.”   

—Malaika Fernandes