Up close with director George C. Wolfe at the Drama League
JEANETTE TOOMER | 1/25/2018, 4:31 p.m.
Two-time Tony Award-winning director George C. Wolfe returns to Broadway this spring with a revival of the Eugene O’Neill drama, “The Iceman Cometh.” Last Tuesday in an interview sponsored by the Drama League’s Directorfest program, Wolfe talked freely about his youthful beginnings and his long career as a playwright, producer and director at The Public Theater and on
Kamilah Forbes, executive producer of the Apollo Theater, raised questions about his youthful interests in theater, which dates back to his elementary and high school years in Kentucky and his college years at Pomona College in California. Wolfe recalled how, as a teenager, he learned the director’s role in crafting an actor’s behavior to evoke the emotive and dramatic impact of a performance.
He realized that assigning behavior to character portrayal enhances the drama. “If you ferociously commit, you will change people,” he stated.
After graduating with his MFA from New York University, he penned the critically acclaimed satire of Black stereotypes in “The Colored Museum” (1986), which followed on the heels of “brutal” reviews of his first musical, “Paradise,” in 1985. He learned to “cultivate muscle so you are ready for the next thing” after the failed run of “Paradise.”
After the success of “The Colored Museum” came the popular run of “Spunk” and the offer from producer Joseph Papp to become resident director of the New York Shakespeare Festival. He continued in his role as producer at the festival’s Public Theater for 12 years.
Wolfe talked modestly about his contribution to some of the best original dramas and Broadway musicals of the late 20th century. At The Public Theater, he engendered “a ferocious commitment to writers.” For “Twilight” the director commented that you have to “surrender yourself to the work.” He added, “Once in the room, I was looking for ways to get others in the room.”
And so followed the award winning musicals “Jelly’s Last Jam,” “Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk,” “The Wild Party” and “Caroline or Change.” In addition was the Tony Award- winning Broadway Drama, “Angels in America,” as well as the politically charged “Fires in the Mirror,” “Lackawanna Blues” and “Top Dog/Underdog” among others. At The Public Theater, Wolfe wanted “to create a theater that reflects the texture of New York.”
He described how directing includes a “period of not knowing” and then discovery. For “Bring in ‘da Noise and Bring in ‘da Funk” they ask themselves, “How does history and rhythm dance together?”
He describes how on Broadway there are many rewrites before a show opens. It is important to check one’s ego at the door. In other words, this multitalented writer-director advises, “You should bring your galoshes because there will be blood.”
For the films he’s directed, he said that he was asked to help with “Normal Heart” and “Lackawanna Blues.” Including his film credits (“The Devil Wears Prada,” “Nights in Rodanthe, “Garden State” and recently for HBO, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” among others),Wolfe is one of the most prolific and celebrated American directors of our times and the only African-American writer-director to reach these heights. The aforementioned still does not include his list of directorial credits of Shakespearean dramas. The only one he mentioned was “The Tempest” and another that he would like to direct is “Titus Andronicus.”
For his present directorial project, he said he has conducted some research on the setting of the bar and surrounding Tribeca neighborhood of “The Iceman Cometh.” The revival also stars Oscar-winning actor Denzel Washington. The theme of O’Neill’s drama is somber and even depressing at times. How does Wolfe plan to address the sad pessimism in this classic drama? The answer to that question lies in his favorite theme: “I can’t live inside the pain, but I can’t live without it.”