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COVER STORY : Forget Jelly, George is Jammin' : George C. Wolfe is right on schedule with New York's Public Theater. His first two seasons were trial runs. Now Wolfe tackles the critical third season--you know, the one in which the blossoming takes place.

November 20, 1994|Patrick Pacheco | Patrick Pacheco is a frequent contributor to Calendar.

NEW YORK — Doors have of ten played a central role in George C. Wolfe's produc tions. "Up for Grabs," which he wrote and directed as a student at Pomona College, saw a young black man metamorphose from corporate executive to revolutionary to superhero as he moved through a revolving door.

"Jelly's Last Jam," Wolfe's 1991 Broadway musical about Jelly Roll Morton, used an upstage door as a portal through which figures of the jazz great's past are evoked to tell his bitter story.

In "Blade to the Heat," Oliver Mayer's new play that Wolfe directed as the season opener for the New York Shakespeare Festival at the Public Theater, he used a door as a kind of stylistic opening to the insulated world of a 1959 Los Angeles boxing ring and its battered Latino and black fighters.

"You know, there wasn't a door in 'Jelly's' when I did it in L.A.," Wolfe said, referring to the 1991 production at the Mark Taper Forum that he wrote and directed before its Broadway appearance. The idea for the door, he explained, came about when he took a trip to Senegal and visited one of the main embarkation points where Africans were shipped out to America to become slaves.

"It was a very cerebral experience until I came to a door, what remained of a wharf on the site," Wolfe said. "And suddenly I became very emotional. I got it. On one side of that door, those people were their own definition. They had an existence. But once they went through that door, they became all these other people's definitions--slave, nigger, coon, African American--contrived, convoluted, negative-positive definitions of who they are.

"There is always a desire, but one can never ever go back through that door. And so you have this dramatic tension. It's Jelly's story but it's really the story of America, the story of the immigrant experience, whether you're talking about the pilgrims or the Irish or the Italians, or Latinos or whomever. That's what theater can do: open the door on those experiences."

Now that the Broadway production of "Jelly's Last Jam" is finally on its national tour, West Coast audiences will have a chance to see Wolfe's interpretation of one man's life on the other side of that door. (The show plays Nov. 29-Dec. 4 at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa before moving in January to the McCallum Theatre in Palm Desert, the Pasadena Civic and possibly San Diego.)

But capturing those stories of America has taken on an even greater urgency for the 40-year-old writer-director since he himself first went through the revolving doors into the Public Theater, in 1987, with his play "The Colored Museum," a satire of black stereotypes. With that production he emerged as one of the hottest young talents in the American theater.

At the time, 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 multiple Tony-winning Broadway productions of Tony Kushner's "Angels in America," Parts 1 and 2, after replacing Oskar Eustis, who directed "Angels" at the Mark Taper Forum.

And in March, 1993, he took on what is one of the most prized jobs in show business: the directorship of the Public, replacing JoAnne Akalaitis, whose stormy tenure there followed the death of the Public's late, much-revered founder, Joseph Papp.

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Wolfe is now in the thick of his third season at the Public, but this year marks his first full test as producer.

At the time of his appointment, he was still rehearsing "Millennium Approaches," the first part of "Angels in America," on Broadway, with the second part, "Perestroika," due to open the following fall. In addition, he had on his agenda directing the national touring productions of both "Jelly" and "Angels," which will come to the Doolittle Theatre next summer. Now that these shows are touring, they can only heighten his already high profile as producer of the Public.

Expectations of the Public Theater are high because it is considered one of the most influential and powerful forces in American theater. Founded by Joseph Papp in a church basement 40 years ago, the theater first produced such acclaimed yet diverse musicals as "Hair," "Two Gentlemen of Verona," "Pirates of Penzance" and "A Chorus Line," and it nurtured the early careers of now-famous playwrights such as Sam Shepard, Ntozake Shange, David Rabe and David Hare and actors including Raul Julia, Morgan Freeman, Kevin Kline and Meryl Streep. All that, while its mandate is still to be the preeminent producer of Shakespeare in this country--established by its traveling shows in the barrios in the early years to the continuing free summer productions in Central Park at the Delacorte Theatre, to its present mission to produce Shakespeare's entire 40-play canon.

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