George Costella Wolfe is an eminent playwright, producer, actor, and director in American theater. Born in Frankfort, Kentucky, and raised with three siblings (the youngest died in infancy), Wolfe’s father, Costella, a government state worker, and mother, Anna, a high school teacher and principal of an all-black school, provided him with the support and encouragement that he needed to succeed. After moving to an integrated neighborhood, his experiences of being one of few black students in school caused him to withdraw; he turned to books and other solitary activities.
On a visit to New York City when he was thirteen, Wolfe saw a production of Hello Dolly starring Pearl Bailey and developed a love of the theater. As a result, he started directing plays at Frankfort High School when he returned home. After graduating, he attended Kentucky State College and later transferred to Pomona College in Claremont, California, where he continued to work in theater, first as an actor and later as a director. Wolfe received a B.A. 1976 from Pomona College. In Los Angeles, he wrote, directed, and acted in plays, working as a playwright and director at the Los Angeles Inner City Cultural Center; he left California because he discovered that success could only be made in movies and television, not theater. In 1979 Wolfe returned to New York City, enrolled as a graduate student in musical theater at New York University and continued to write, act, and direct. He received an M.A. degree in 1983.
Dissatisfied with plays by and about African Americans that he directed because they only focused on hardships that blacks suffered, Wolfe began writing his own plays. Wolfe’s first effort, Up for Grabs, a comedy satire, was produced in 1975 when he was an undergraduate at Pomona College. It won the regional festival at the American Theater Festival. In 1977 he won the same award for Block Party, his second play. From 1978 to 1979, his plays Tribal Rites and Back Alley Tales were produced by the Inner City Cultural Center in Los Angeles. In New York City, where Wolfe taught at City College of New York and at the Richard Allen Center for Cultural Arts, he continued his education as a graduate student in the musical theater program at New York University and graduated with an M.F.A. degree in dramatic writing. Although his first plays did not win a wide audience, a major reception greeted his next production, The Colored Museum, a satire on black people and culture that exploded black cultural myths and challenged some of African Americans’ most cherished icons and plays, including Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (pr., pb. 1959) and Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice (1968). When the play opened at the Shakespeare Festival Public Theater, it was a critical success and provided him other opportunities as an administrator and director. More important, the play established Wolfe as a master of social analysis and as an astute stage manager. A series of critically acclaimed plays followed over the next seven years: Paradise, Queenie Pie (libretto), Hunger Chic, Spunk, Blackout, and Jelly’s Last Jam, a box-office success and the pinnacle of his theater experience. The play premiered in Los Angeles in 1991 and in 1992 then moved to Broadway, where Gregory Hines starred. A tribute to Jelly Roll Morton, an African American jazz musician and composer, it emphasizes the role of suffering and community in the creation of jazz. Critic Thulani Davis argued that the play was misogynistic and trivialized black struggle.
In 1989 Wolfe creatively adapted Zora Neale Hurston’s three short stories: “Story in Harlem Slang,” “Sweat,” and “The Gilded Six Bits,” as Spunk, which was produced in New York City in 1990 with music by Chic Street Man Theater Group, choreography by Hope Clarke, sets by Loy Arcenas, lights by Don Holder, and costumes by Toni-Leslie James. He also directed an adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle (1965) in 1990, written by...
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