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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

March 03, 1991|HILARY De VRIES | Hilary De Vries is a frequent contributor to Calendar.

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."

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