George C. Wolfe

by bell hooks


Nora Cole and Maurice Hines in the national tour of George C. Wolfe's Jelly's Last Jam. Photograph by Harry Butler.

On the evening Anna Deavere Smith’s Twilight closed, a bunch of folks gathered at George Wolfe’s house to celebrate. A feast of heavenly food before us, we would be exclaiming every now and then how “that dish was too tasty for words.” And we would hear—“Oh, that’s the dish George cooked." Somehow in the midst of a backbreaking work schedule, George found the time to express his appreciation and love for Anna, her work—for everyone who supports and sustains that work—by a simple gesture of making food. In the South, where George and I come from, preparing home cooked food is a gesture of high regard and care, a sign of intimacy.

Whenever any of us come home to Kentucky, even before we arrive, our mama wants to know the favorite dish—what we want to eat that will not only tantalize our senses but let us know that we have returned to a space of comfort and warmth where our needs can be met—where we can care for our souls. Years ago, when feminist thinkers first articulated the need for a cultural revolution that would fundamentally alter our fixed stereotypes about masculine and feminine, we theorized that challenging the split between public and private would create a social context where the values women traditionally taught in home life (sharing, nurturing, sacrificing for the needs of others) would no longer be confined to the home but would transform the public sphere. They would enable, through feminist thinking and practice, a new masculinity to emerge. George Wolfe personifies this new man. Redefining masculinity by the way he works, his refusal to forego emotional expressiveness, challenging nationalism as the only possible standpoint by which we can know reality, seeing feelings and emotions as a genuine and valid source of knowledge and understanding, Wolfe brings to his work in the theater a new vision. From writer and director of Jelly’s Last Jam, to the Tony award-winning director of Angels in America, and to his working relationships as producer of the New York Shakespeare Festival where he is currently directing Blade to the Heat, on all levels he seeks to disrupt the conventional patterns of domination, and the race, class, sex hierarchies that have been enshrined in American theater. George Wolfe epitomizes the engaged artist and critical thinker who dares to unite theory and practice.

bell hooks We both come from Kentucky, one of the states people think is the outer limits of provinciality. Yet we both come out of a people that are incredibly interested in world culture, in people leaping across boundaries. In what way does Kentucky prepare you to be a critical thinker about issues of culture and diversity? Or does it not? Was it getting away?

George C. Wolfe It was getting away and being there. I grew up in a segregated town and part of growing up in that segregated town was being in a multilayered black community in Kentucky. Very early on you learn about negotiating class, about negotiating with people who are very different from you. The black community was a very contained reality, and at the time I came along, there was a significant level of indoctrination going on, which was the old line, “They think you’re less than so you’ve got to be better than,” but at the same time it was passed on to me that I was better than, so . . .

bh Did you go to all-white schools?

GW I went to Rosenwald, which is a private black laboratory school at Kentucky State University, so when it was Negro History Week, it was: this black person invented the traffic light, this black person did this . . . They shoved these thoughts down your throat, and white people were this thing over there, they weren’t better. People were still processing their hair, my grandmother would squeeze my nose, and she would pull my hat back so that all the white people in the stores could see that I had curly hair. But at the same time, she would attack anybody who attacked me. Somewhere buried in all these signals was all the race crap black people are always working out, yet at the same time there was a cultural fierceness.

bh Hey, we both have it.

GW Exactly. Some insurance man came to collect, a white man, and my grandmother said, “Take off your hat.” She was ironing. He didn’t do it. So she talked about something else, and then said, “Take off your hat.” And he still didn’t do it, and she said, “You have a choice. You can either take off your hat, or I can throw this iron and knock it off. Now which one are you going to do?” He took off the hat. These were the stories that were passed on to me. The stories of “Go Down, Moses” weren’t passed on to me. All the stories that were told to me were stories of defiance. I also remember my grandmother told me, “When I was little, all the little white girls used to call us niggers. So I would take my fingers and I’d twist my fingers into their ringlets and sling them down on the ground. But don’t you do that baby, cause I was green and lucky.” (laughter)

bh This is the oppositional black culture that I write about.

GW When The Colored Museum happened, all these mediocre Negroes who regard themselves as the guardians of black culture attacked me because they thought I was attacking black culture, that I was doing things in front of white people that shouldn’t be done. They didn’t understand my arrogance, my belief that the culture I come from is so strong it can withstand public scrutiny. I don’t view black culture as a fragile thing. There are unquestionably economic realities and, without a doubt, racism and the machinery of power and the crap that gets done to men and the crap that gets done to women—all of that stuff is very real. It affects us. But if Michael Jackson can mutilate his body—and still create, make sounds that come out of him which are ancient, vocally—some part of his spirit remains intact, has not been violated. It doesn’t matter that he’s singing, “It don’t matter if you’re black or white.” Even as psychological and intellectual mutilations take place, as long as there’s still a cultural base, anything that anybody writes or says or does is strong enough to withstand these violations. You know, about eight years ago, I saw a picture of my great-great-great-grandmother, who must have been about 90 years old, who’d come over as a slave. Well that ended all discussions of inferiority—ended it. It connected me so far back. It made it very tangible and very real. There has never been any question about who I am. Yet, when I went to California when I was about 18, people started asking me what I was, because I looked like a bunch of things. It was startling to me because it was so clear from the day I was born, I was black.

bh I too feel that I came out of an Appalachian culture of defiance, the culture of the backwoods. I grew up with very specific hardcore values, not just about blackness, but about integrity of being. When people come to a George Wolfe in New York City without understanding that Kentucky background of yours, it’s easy to see you as this crossover marvel who is not so, “black identified” but who is representing, as the Time magazine piece on African-American arts tried to suggest, this “new kind of person.” Yet they fail to see the culture that laid the groundwork for your self-actualization. Knowing that background, I see you as the quintessential culture of resistance race man. You are totally proud and defiant in your own culture, a lover of blackness, and because of the strength of that love, you are able to go anywhere in the world and mix.

GW I was groomed to go into the rooms where you don’t belong, dazzle the people, and then unlock all the doors and windows so that other people can come in. From the day I was born, I was trained to do that.

bh I can remember my mother who worked as a maid in white people’s houses, telling me, when I was getting ready to go to Stanford, “Now remember, you can take what white people have to offer, but you don’t have to love them.” We were raised to believe that you should go out, and explore, journey to find yourself, to self-actualize, but your core sense of self and identity had to remain rooted in the particularity of your vernacular culture as a southern American and an African-American.

GW What I love about travel is going to a place where I don’t belong—more than anything this clarifies who I really am. All of a sudden, I will be walking down a little street in Sicily, and I’ll hear some black music in a tiny little town, that hasn’t even seen all but 12 black people and I am awed by the power of African diasporic movement. And I become arrogant. It becomes very clear to me that African-American culture is not a phenomenon of the United States, it’s an extraordinary world culture. If I had 80 million dollars, I would line up every single black person in America, spin the globe around, and go, “Boom, you’re going over here, you’re going over there, stay there three weeks and then come back.” It would change the world—empower us all, fundamentally changing the stereotypical ways white Americans see black people. Because there’s a whole other kind of party going on.

bh This was a truth of black experience Baldwin realized early on in his career. As an insurgent intellectual-critical thinker, he remains one of our prophets. You and I wouldn’t be where we are today if it weren’t for Baldwin’s intellectual re-imaginings of culture and identity. Beyond questions of sexuality and race, he so urged us to consider self-actualization, to care for the soul. In my Kentucky upbringing I was given a real concern for art and aesthetics and an emphasis on care of the soul that had nothing to do with race.

GW At Rosenwald, there was this really severe woman named Minnie J. Hitch, who I think is probably still alive and who will never die. She was the principal, and she gave me what I now realize was my first lesson in directing—my first lesson in the power of culture. We were to perform for a white P.T.A. at another school. We were to sing a song, “These truths we are declaring, that all men are the same . . .” Miss Hitch, I’ll never forget, told us when we got to the line, “that liberty’s a torch burning with a steady flame,” we were to sing with intensity because the power of that line was going to knock out all that racism in those people. And I remember to this day, singing that line, (sings), "These truths we are declaring, that all men are the same, (screams) that liberty’s a torch burning with—" I sang that line like that because it was like your life mattered somehow in those words and in that singing. If you committed fully to that, it would have power—it would make something happen to that audience.

bh It’s precisely that vision of art and the place of theater that you brought to New York, and to being producer and director here at the Public Theater. It’s there in the work, it’s there in Jelly’s Last Jam, in Twilight, and now in Blade to the Heat.

GW When I was doing Zora Neale Hurston’s Spunk, all these black actors came to auditions with such arrogance and hostility because the script was “dis and dat and dese and dose,” and then they tried to speak the rhythm of the language and they couldn’t do it. They did not have the technical skills. They had the arrogance to mock what Zora Neale Hurston had captured, but they didn’t have the skills as actors to do the language. There’s one line in Hurston’s work where a character says, “Ah’m mighty proud son, cause Ah never thought too much of you marryin’ Missie May cause her ma use tuh fan her foot ’round right smart and Ah wuz mighty skeered dat Missie Mae wuz gointer git misput on her road.” Say that line! The rhythmic structure of that line is as intricate as anything you’ll find in Shakespeare. But they dismissed it, and then couldn’t do it. I loved it. This line evoked the southern cadences, I mean so much of what is fascinating about southern black culture is that buried in those cadences are these African lost languages that, when spoken, come out. That’s what jazz is—us releasing our lost languages. That’s what dance is—releasing these lost languages that are buried inside us.

bh Part of what Blade to the Heat reminds us as well is that this lost language was also recovered in the world of sports—in boxing, that there is magic in the choreography of the body. The aesthetics of the black male boxer, and the language of the body in the diaspora is a political language. One of the visions you are bringing to the theater is a will to make counter-hegemonic choices about the roles actors play. Traditionally in the theater there has always been the notion of being true to a particular identity. But you say, there has to be diversity. There have to be people playing all kind of roles. There has to be appreciation for the classical but not in the same old way. It seems to me that you bring to the theater a vision of border crossing—theater as a site of transgression and possibility.

GW Unfortunately or fortunately, we’re at a period in time where whether we want to or not we now have to negotiate relationships with people who are very different from us. If you want to survive, everybody has to do it now. The other choice is to kill off everybody who is different than you so you don’t have to engage in the negotiation. That’s not a very realistic option, and there’s only so much killing that can go on. So we actively have to learn how to negotiate, and for me that’s very specifically a Kentucky thing. It was made very clear to me that the white world had certain things. Like the Capital Theater could play certain movies, or this store had certain things, so I had to negotiate if I wanted those things. But Kentucky was also a very suffocating place. There are slots, and you must fit into one of those slots. There are slots in New York, but there are a greater number of slots you can fit into, and they’re very interesting slots. I went back one time for Christmas and I met a cousin of mine who everybody in my family said was kind of crazy. She took me over to her house; it was a maze of books. She had invented her own language that she had written on the ceiling with glitter and glue. Now, if she were in New York, you know, she’d be on the cover of the Village Voice (laughter) but in Kentucky, she was a nut. It became very clear that if I wanted to become fully self-realized, if I wanted to let out all the other people that I was, I had to leave there and go away. And I did that. I ran from that place. I think everyone in my family ran, because my sister moved to another town, my older brother, my younger brother. And once all of us had left, my parents left. Whereas the phenomenon of being in Kentucky was a very nurturing and fulfilling thing, there were other pieces of ourselves that we wanted to explore. However, once I stayed away for a period of time, I realized I had left some stuff there, memories from the first six or seven years of my life. So that when I would go back to talk or to visit my family, I’d start to recollect memories and take them with me.

bh I think we both see ourselves growing in those communities, growing away from them but holding onto them at the same time. This fluid sense of black identity is so at odds with the construction of authentic black identity that narrow nationalism privileges.

GW After the Tony awards (which I won two years before for directing Angels), the Ninth Avenue Fair was going on and I was all beaten up and out of it because I had been working too hard, appearing everywhere—on television. A lot of people were recognizing me so I was doing the unshaved, dark glasses, hiding-from-the-world-I-want-to-be-alone kind of crap. I was walking around the fair, and these two little old black ladies who looked exactly like the people who’d sit in the front row of my church back home stopped me. The two most unlikely human beings you’d ever think would go to see Angels in America. “We so proud of you! You won that award! And I hear all the things you’re doing.” I’m sure they hadn’t seen anything that I’d done, but they claimed me. And it was such an extraordinary event because it was like me standing up and playing on my trumpet, “Drink To Me Only With Thine Eyes” in the First Baptist Church. And they kept going “Amen, Amen” after I finished and I played it badly but it was the same, oh you’re doing something, you’re uplifting the race, you’re embracing the community. Once you leave the tribe, there is this sense of abandonment that the tribe feels. Once you accomplish something, it shines a favorable light on the tribe and it expands the tribe’s sense of its own significance and importance.

bh Baldwin talked about the theater as a place for community and communion. You’ve tried to bring that spirit to New York. When you tell us things like, “We have to try to make this theater available to as many people as possible,” I see you working to bring that sense of collective spirit; how are people responding to this particular vision and to the realization of it? Certainly, those of us who sit in the audience of Jelly or Twilight or Blade know that we are witnessing a spirit of diversity in the theater that is different—that is breaking new ground. There are many folks who might never have come to the Public Theater because your presence there has created a cultural shift. Not because you are a black, gay man, but because your vision is expansive.

GW The American thought process about pop culture is so compartmentalized that the initial impulse is to be suspicious when the scene changes. If I’m including something new, if there’s a play that has a gay theme, the response is, “He’s not black anymore, he’s doing that homosexual thing.” Last year was the first season at the Public which was a good throw-together. We did about 11 plays last year. Three to four of them had African-American artists as the key creative forces behind them. I think some husband of somebody on the Board said, “Our Public Theater’s getting awfully black.” Boom. Then I heard that there were a bunch of black people going around saying, “Oh, he’s only doing that artsy, black intellectual stuff. He’s not doing that real black stuff.” Please. So last year there were all these suspicions that were going on because I was mixing and matching and putting it all in one room. People are not used to thinking expansively about culture or thinking about themselves as being part of something that’s bigger than just black or white. There’s a much more complicated landscape now. This year, I think artists are excited about coming to work at the Public, and different kinds of people are coming to the theater. Now people are beginning to go, “Oh, I get what’s going on.” One of my favorite stories is about a person on the Board who has become one of the most extraordinary supporters of the vision of the theater. When I first came on board there was a play that was done, Marisol, by Jose Rivera. And it was a black, Latin, and white cast. And at intermission, I saw an all-white crew change the scenery of this play which had black people and Latin people and white people in it continuously. And I brought this up to this Board member, “No, we’re not going to do that. If we’re going to be a community in each other’s space, we’re going to be in each other’s space in every single compartment.” And later he told me, “That night I went home and I had this dream. And in the middle of the dream I said to myself, ‘Oh my God, George is going to turn the Public Theater into the NEC.’” (laughter) And then he said, “Now why would I think that way?” I said, “Because by virtue of change taking place you naturally assumed that as a white person you were going to be excluded from the midst. If I’ve spent my entire existence fighting being excluded, what makes you think now that I’m in a position of power where I can create something, that that’s going to be my first agenda?”

bh It’s precisely because so many white people—and even gifted, artistic white people—have failed at inclusion, that it’s hard for them to imagine that people of color, and black people in particular, can occupy spaces of power and actually bring to fruition a vision of inclusion.

GW I used to program the season in a horizontal way and now I program it in a vertical way because we have five theaters. I imagine which audience will come see the play. Simpatico, Sam Shepard’s new play will bring in the traditional theater art which is predominately white, the East Side, aren’t-we-smart set. And then The Diva is Dismissed will get a black crowd and a gay crowd, and Blade will hopefully get a Latin crowd and a black crowd and a young crowd, and because I’m attached we’ll get some of the traditional theater audiences. You have all these people negotiating a space in the Public’s lobby, so that it becomes a great watering hole in New York City where you have to negotiate relationships with people different from you. I went to see a Ulysses Dove piece that was done at ABT. I was waiting for a friend to show up and there were four or five seats on the aisle, this white woman, very East Side, was sitting next to me. And she said, “Are you going to move over?” I said, “Well, maybe in a few minutes.” And she said, “If you don’t move over I’m just going to mow you down.”

bh Get out!

GW Now, given the landscape and the fact that I am a black man, she would only say that in a place that was hers. That exact same conversation would not take place on the subway, or in the deli, or anywhere else. So what I’m interested in crafting is a theater space where everyone feels that they have a stake in the ownership.

bh To me Blade to the Heat does that. Let’s talk about it. I was really fascinated by this presentation of a play that’s set in the ’50s and yet offers a powerful representation of cultural diversity—of border crossing. It made me realize how much the world of sports and boxing in particular was a site for cultural mixing. And I’m going to tell you the truth. When I got there the other night, I was like, “Oh my god, it’s about boxing.” (laughter) This is as close to the ring as I’m going to get. And then I heard the white woman sitting next to me say to the man she was with, “This is as close to a boxing ring as I’m ever gonna get.” To take that sport and to utilize it in theater, not only creates a place for diversity on the stage, but for the coming together of a diverse audience. Its specific emphasis on the intermixing of black and Latino culture, on the underpinnings of sexual desire and transgression. The whole feel of the play has this capacity to draw in everyone.

GW Precisely. That’s what was so silly about the article in Time. I call it the John Wayne thought process, that if A is going on, it’s inconceivable that X could be happening at the exact same time.

bh It’s totally Western metaphysical dualism. It’s always the “either or” rather than the “both and.” Part of what is so prophetic is that the play is saying these issues around identity didn’t just come up in the ’80s and ’90s. They were there in the ’50s, particularly around the space of sexuality and people of color. There was a struggle about defining who you are, about racial mixing, about language. It’s all there. I think a lot of people could not let loose and respond in a visceral way to the play because they’re not used to seeing those two things come together on the bodies of people of color, where we can see this drama as deeply, madly serious yet also entertaining.

GW I wanted to try to create an extraordinarily visceral experience so that you couldn’t go into your head. Your head was there but I wanted your body to be responding in ways that you didn’t know that it was responding. I want it to be arresting and sensual and violent and sexual. I just wrote a memo this morning saying, “get me some alive people in the audience please.”

bh What this kind of theater does is really change our sense of audience and change our sense of audience participation. Part of the cultural reimagining is also how do we reimagine an audience. How do we let an audience know that it’s okay to be engaged, because we have had that bourgeois sensibility about the theater that says, this is not a place of engagement. I think it’s because it’s such a close theater setting. It’s not like when we see Twilight in that huge Broadway stage where we can weep and laugh in our seats, but not be seen by anybody. Blade is such a wonderful, emotional sense of border crossing when you see the notion of James Brown and the idea of black music and black dancing having a total impact on the world of boxing. And Michael Olahije’s choreography is astounding. It’s such a sensual, very romantic, visual experience, and to represent that with the issues of defining sexual identity, of having the freedom to have our sexualities was really intense. It’s too simplistic to see the play as being about the whole question of a closeted gay person. The whole point is that sexuality is so hard to define. One of the universal things about Blade is its insistence that desire has the capacity to disrupt all of our fixed boundaries.

GW The thing which is fascinating to me about each of the male characters is they have a primal need to be in proximity to other men. Three-finger Jack, the older black boxer, has a primal need to father Pedro, this younger boxer, and is willing to negotiate whatever sexual orientation Pedro has because he has a need to pass on information. Mantequilla, the boxer that fights against Pedro, has a deep desire to believe in this older fighter. So, all these people are trying to negotiate this very complicated landscape. The society that we’re a part of only allows intimacy, physical intimacy between two men if they’re trying to kill or conquer each other.

bh Then there is Wilfred, the one who is the consummate deconstructivist, who gives the harsh materialist read on everything. He is such a magnificent personification of the capitalist impulse in relation to the bodies of men of color and the world of sports. He says, finally, “none of this matters, it’s all about exploitation.” He brings that real class hardcore read about what this is all about.

GW That was the whole thing, the little door. Ever since I went to Senegal, to Ile Goree and saw the door, the world, the universe . . . Jelly began with a door. In fact, Jelly was about a series of doors, and the other night, after Blade this guy said to me, “This is a George Wolfe show.” And I said “What are you talking about?” and he said, “Well, there’s music, there’s motion, and there’s the door.” Have you ever been to Ile Goree? It’s this island near Dakar that was a significant port where black slaves were sent off. You go through and you’re shown the ball and the chain and the dungeons . . . It was horror, horror, horror, horror, horror. Then there was the door that led to a wharf where the slaves were sent out to the ships. Once they passed through that door, in balls and chains, they were no longer their own definition. They were three-fifths of a human being. They were coons, they were niggers, they were Negroes. Regardless of what African-American people do, they can never, ever go back through that door. They can fly, they can leap, but they cannot go back through that door. So there’s always this place, this zone that is beyond, that has this extraordinary power. Jelly has this door that led out to this extremely powerful black void that the chimney man appeared through. Riccardo Hernandez is a wonderful set designer, and I told him I need a door right there in Blade. At first, I didn’t even know why it was there but then I realized, beyond that door is where the power structure is doing its thing so that these men of color are running around on this little maze trying to make a living.

bh The door also made me think though, about thresholds and crossroads. The incredible pathos of the play that’s evolved when Pedro talks about his dreams, and our unconscious longings and how we are brought in life to experiences that serve as catalysts to disrupt our fixed boundaries and bring those longings out. I was thinking of that line in the play where someone says, “You did what you had to do, you came out the other side.” That whole line seemed to express a struggle that we’re all engaged in, which is to go through this process of journeying that we talked about earlier, so that we can come out to that other side, which is the self-actualization of ourselves. The play is so much about peoples’ longings and dreams, particularly those of the older black man who personifies that sense of when you aren’t able to realize your dream because there was some system of oppression or domination. We project that legacy onto future generations, that you’ve got to carry the torch. This goes back to those of us who were raised to be race men and women, that is to say, our mission as black people was to uplift the race. What happens when that conflicts with our own individual struggle for self-realization and self-actualization? I don’t want to be uplifting the race all the time. Sometimes in my life I want to be just struggling with those issues of my own. Blade really gets at that particular conflict.

GW Alacran, the older boxer, discredits Pedro for being Latin because he’s part Latin and because he’s also gay. And because he doesn’t speak Spanish. He’s not pure. My goal is to really make the Public a true American theater because I don’t think that’s ever been done. We’re all just a whole bunch of mutts at a party making this peculiar thing called American culture. That’s what I want the Public to be.

bh I thought Blade to the Heat actually disrupts the notion that there was any closed world either for blacks or Latinos in a sense. In fact, here is the world of boxing as it played itself out for people of color, and there’s this incredible mix. It also disrupts the notion that there’s any one singular Latino identity because there’s the evocation of Cuba, of Puerto Rico, of Chicanos. Part of what this play does is say the incredible artistic choreography of boxing has a continuum in the dancing of Latino and African-American people, and people of color in the diaspora. This play is so much a play of the diaspora. A border crossing from all sides and all kind of mixtures, even to the darker skin of Mantequilla and then the whiter skin of Pedro. Everything’s disrupted and none of the advertisements really convey to people how this play can be true to a certain feel of the ’50s and yet have all of these issues that are so immediate to us right now. It seems to me that this will be a continual challenge for the Public Theater.

GW In the conceptualization of the work, there is no limiting thought process going on. We should examine how we’re presenting it because somewhere in there there is a limited thought process. That’s very fascinating. I want to invite people who can talk about what’s happening here in a much larger context than “We’ve got that play up.” If we’re just putting on plays then I’m really bored, but if we’re somehow helping to shape or expand the definitions of culture then I can see myself being engaged for a very long time. So having you here, and other people who think about culture, who work with culture, being an integral part of the building, is very important to me. It’s very, very, very important to me.

 

bell hooks's most recent books, Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations and Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom have both been published this year by Routledge.

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Playwriting
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african american culture
BOMB 50
Winter 1995
The cover of BOMB 50
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