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Rap, Tap and . . . 'Macbeth'?

With 'Bring in 'Da Noise,' George C. Wolfe created a cultural collision--and a hit. Next up: the Public's main man returns to Shakespeare.

March 01, 1998|Patrick Pacheco | Patrick Pacheco is a regular contributor to Calendar

NEW YORK — Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has recently vowed to crack down on jaywalking New Yorkers, but it's unlikely the law could ever catch up with George C. Wolfe, the willful, energetic and restless producer of the Joseph Papp Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival. Roger Rabbit himself couldn't better navigate the cars speeding down Lafayette Street, the wide boulevard in front of the bustling downtown theater complex Wolfe has headed since 1993.

"I don't care how thick traffic is, I can get across the street, zip, zip, zip, and not get hit," the voluble director says later, reclining on a leather couch in his funky, cluttered office. "And that's the way I'm used to functioning. But try doing that with 100 people."

The traffic-dodging metaphor--in response to how Wolfe's damn-the-torpedoes style clashes with managing such an enormously complex institution as the Public Theater--is well chosen. Five years after accepting the mantle of the late Joseph Papp--after an brief and stormy 18-month tenure in the role by JoAnne Akalaitis--Wolfe has finally recast in his image an institution that many consider one of the most potent theatrical forces in the country. He claims he has done so by making sure that the Public's stages reflect the diverse concerns and frenetic energies of the multicultural community he considers his constituency. He fondly speaks of the "cultural collisions" he is effecting among Village gays and uptown blacks, young Asians from Queens and elderly Jews, affluent Upper East Side whites and barrio Latinos.

"George likes to work in chaos, positive chaos," says Ken Lerer, chairman of the Public's board. "The more things he has to do, the better he is."

Right now, there are also quite a few collisions going on inside the Public. In fact, for the interview, the director has snatched an hour out of his busy schedule dominated by rehearsals for "Macbeth," a new production starring Alec Baldwin and Angela Bassett opening at the theater on March 15. The show is the high-profile moment of a spring season that also includes the American premiere of Irish playwright Martin McDonagh's London hit "The Cripple of Inishmaan" and "Everybody's Ruby," a new play by Thulani Davis, the African American playwright and librettist for "Amistad," the opera Wolfe directed at the Chicago Lyric Opera in the fall. (A recent plan to produce Wolfe's revival of Leonard Bernstein's "On the Town," which played in the summer at the Delacorte in Central Park on Broadway, has been postponed to fall.)

Yet despite all the current activity at 425 Lafayette, it is the road tour of "Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk" that represents one of the boldest new directions for the Public. The Tony-winning Broadway smash about the African American experience told through a kinetic fusion of tap and rap began its national tour in September in Detroit and opens at Los Angeles' Ahmanson Theatre on March 11.

This is the Public's first time producing and financing a national tour on its own, an unprecedented move that when first raised caused considerable concern among many of the board members of the nonprofit theater. Fears well-founded, according to Manny Kladitis, a veteran producer. "Frankly I can see where it was risky, especially for a nonprofit theater, which is not supposed to take big risks."

Wolfe points out, however, that similar fears were voiced in 1996, when Wolfe pressed his board to move from the Public to Broadway the tap-rap musical he'd created in collaboration with Savion Glover--its original star and choreographer. "I was told by many theater professionals that it would never run," he says of the show, which continues to draw 80% attendance.

"A musical with an all-black cast and some edge? And three years later, ha, ha, ha, we've made a lot of money, thank you very much." Indeed, the Broadway run has earned a profit of nearly $3 million dollars, which was reinvested in the road company.

With the bargaining chip of having scored big with "Noise/Funk" on Broadway, Wolfe says he articulated his "passion and vision" to the board, arguing that if the Public produced the tour, they could then dictate the terms of the marketing. He explained that he wanted to maintain control of the show because he'd felt "badly burned" when "Jelly's Last Jam," which he'd directed both on Broadway and for the road, was presented by "clueless" promoters and producers who insisted on "categorizing" the production as a black show for black audiences. That, he said, was not going to happen to "Noise/Funk."

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