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Wolfe's now writing a musical about Jelly Roll Morton

Walker found Zora's unmarked grave and dignified it with a tombstone inscribed with: "Zora Neale Hurston, A Genius of the South."

George C. Wolfe seems the perfect playwright to adapt Zora's folk tales for the stage. Zora was an exuberant conversationalist and master of Southern black patois. Wolfe has a rabid, staccato pattern of speech that exploded with a myriad of ideas in one sentence. He admits that it's part of his style. "In my work," he explains, "I like to shift gears midway. I like to let people think that I'm in the one zone, then I shift to another, then go back to the zone I was in originally."

Asked what the most difficult thing was about writing Spunk, the playwright replies: "The most difficult thing for me was finding the balance between the visual elegance of the staging and the primal emotions of the characters. Lots of times, when things are very stylized--as they are in this production--emotions really do not run that deep. Achieving that balance between difficult stylization and emotional naturalness was the big challenge to me."

The imaginative masks used in the first tale were inspired by Japanese woodcuts that are devices of Nō, the classic drama of Japan that is based on folk and religious tales. "I wanted to use a lot of devices from Nō theatre, but have the visuals be things that come from a SOuthern black idiom," Wolfe states. "It's like taking the visual vocabularly of one form and applying it to the conceptual vocabulary of a completely different form. The staging is very stylized and suggestive, as opposed to being bound within the realm of realism."

Playwright Wolfe was born in Frankfort, Kentucky, in the 1950s. "I think that I was born interested in the theatre," he says. "From the beginning, it made sense to me to create other realities than the one in which I was born. I first came to New York in 1968 when I was 13, and the first Broadway show I saw was Pearl Bailey in Hello, Dolly! The theatre taught me that people could create another way of life in addition to the reality they lived offstage. From that I learned that I could live in a place in terms of both creativity and reality."

Wolfe did not formally study playwriting. He attended Pomona Collge in California where he studied acting, directing and stage design. Playwriting became his next interest, and he moved to Los Angeles and worked as an actor/director/writer at the Inner City Cultural for about three years. "It was an incredible time for me," he recalls, "just in terms of exploring my own vocabulary. Now, after three years, I felt it was time to meet the monster. I came to New York in 1979. It was an intense year for me, Suddenly, all the demons of the world that I only knew in abstraction were now growing next to me on the streets of New York."

Wolfe attended NYU and earned a Masters Degree in its musical theatre program. To support himself, he taught, acted and worked in an archive of black cultural history in SoHo. In 1985 Playwrights Horizons produced his play Paradise, which he says, "...was brutalized by the critics." He had much more luck with the next one.

"CBS used to fund an award," he explains. "The prize was that five plays a year were to be produced in regional theatres. The Crossroads Theatre Company in New Brunswick, N.J., was one of the theatres selected, and my play, The Colored Museum, won the award to be produced there. I was happy because that theatre specializes in developing black works for the theatre. I also received some much-needed money from them."

The Colored Museum, which some critics called a revue, attracted much attention. "Its not a revue," the playwright says, "but it was structured into 11 exhibits, which led some critics to call it a revue. It explores the myth and madness of black Americans. It has satire and parody in it, and it runs the emotional and stylistic gamut."


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[[image - black & white photograph of three African-American performers, 2 men talking to a woman, against a backdrop suggesting streetlights and city streets. They wear clothes of the late 1940s - the 2 men in shoulder-padded, wide-lapeled zoot suits, the woman in a flower-print dress and long dress gloves]]
[[caption]] "From left, K. Todd Freeman, Reggie Montgomery, Danitra Vance in a scene from Spunk"[[/caption]]
[[photograph credit]] Martha Swope

The play proved to be startling and controversial. It started in a "Celebrity Slave Ship," an airline on which passengers are shackled instead of having safety belts to fasten. Each of the 11 exhibits caricatures a black stereotype: Ebony models, businessmen who are black only on weekends, a homosexual, a superstar and other farcical figures. "At the Crossroads Theatre, I involved my vocabulary," Wolfe says. "The play was so successful that Joe Papp brought it to his New York Shakespeare Festival Public Theatre. Two of the actors in it – Danitra Vance and Reggie Montgomery – are now in Spunk." The Colored Museum has had many production since 1986, including one at the Royal Court Theatre in London.

Spunk was first done in a literary cabaret at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. Next, it was produced at the Crossroads Theatre Company, and then, this March, it moved to the Public Theatre. It received high praise for Wolfe's writing and direction and for its brilliant cast. Spunk is a distinguished addition to the current vogue for the works of Zora Neale Hurston. Some of her books are being reissued, and Ruby Dee dramatized her autobiography on Public TV. In January the Lincoln Center Theater will present for the first time in New York, Mule Bone, a play with music that she wrote years ago with Langston Hughes. The American Place Theatre's production of Laurence Holder's Zora Neale Hurston, with Elizabeth Van Dyke in the title role, was a success; and from January 23-27, 1991, her hometown, Eatonville, Florida, is sponsoring its second Zora Neale Hurston arts festival.

As for playwright Wolfe, he is busy writing a new play and the new musical about Jelly Roll Morton. He feels very strongly about the current controversy over the National Endowment for the Arts and the banning of certain works and performers. "When people try to kill the arts," he says, "then shortly thereafter, a whole lot of other rights will be killed. History has proved that over and over again. James Baldwin once said, 'If they come for you in the morning, they'll come for me in the afternoon.' If they come after the arts today, they're going to come after other freedoms."

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