George C. Wolfe

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

It-s tempting, given February-s designation as -Black History Month- to praise George C. Wolfe as the most influential black figure in contemporary American drama. But this is reductive, as one could easily argue that for the last decade, George C. Wolfe has been the most influential man--period--working in American theater.

For the past 12 years, Wolfe has been the producer of the New York Shakespeare Festival and Joseph Papp Public Theater. This was the title that Papp himself held as founder of both these venerable theatrical institutions.

But at the age of 50, Wolfe is stepping down. This spring, he-ll be replaced by a former associate artistic director at the Mark Taper Forum, Oskar Eustis. But Eustis will not hold the title of -producer,- instead he will become the Public-s first -artistic director- with the theater-s finances handled by another person.

This shift in titles shows how even non-profit theater is heading more and more towards business-oriented models and away from the days of the do-it-all impresario. George C. Wolfe is a throwback to that old style of showman who can indeed do it all. A consummate man of the theater, Wolfe directs, produces, composes and writes plays; but most of all; he has that innate sense that can gauge what shows the public will be willing to fork over money for. This ability has allowed Wolfe to nurture some of the finest young theatrical talent around and preside over some of America-s most successful--and artistically daring--new plays and musicals.

Wolfe-s tenure at New York-s premiere off-Broadway venue has not been without its share of tumult, but audiences here in Los Angeles have had a unique chance to witness the best examples of the director-s instincts--and miss his famous flops such as The Wild Party and On the Town. Because of Wolfe-s relationship with Gordon Davidson and the Center Theater Group, his finest work, like Topdog/Underdog, Caroline, or Change, Elaine Stritch At Liberty, and Bring In -Da Noise/Bring In -Da Funk, has all been presented here in L.A.

But this month, as he prepares for his final production at the Public (a new Neil LaBute play starring Ben Stiller and Jeffery Wright), Angelinos have a chance to look at Mr. Wolfe-s past and future. The first piece Wolfe worked on at the Public, titled The Colored Museum, is currently being revived by a small theater in Silverlake; and Wolfe-s first motion picture, Lackawanna Blues, which recently debuted at the Sundance Film Festival, is being shown this month on HBO.

Lackawanna Blues, based on a one-man play by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, is a good example of the Public-s house style under Wolfe--a traditional, if quirky, narrative set against a multicultural backdrop.

However, The Colored Museum, a play that Wolfe wrote almost 20 years ago, is a very different style of theater entirely. The play is made up of 11 vaudeville-style vignettes that investigate and satirize the stereotypes of black culture. One of these segments is right on target. -The Gospel According to Miss Roj- is a bittersweet portrait of a black drag queen who flips from bitchiness to piety at the snap--or many snaps--of her finger. As played by the excellent LaCares Green, Miss Roj emerges as a flesh and blood character that cuts beyond stereotype, whereas most of the other parts are just hyperbolic caricatures. Sadly, too many of the vignettes--such as the one that lampoons Ebony magazine or the satire of Lorraine Hansberry-inspired social melodramas--feel like skits from a not particularly memorable episode of the old sketch comedy show In Living Color.

Twenty years ago, The Colored Museum probably seemed daring, but as black culture has moved from the periphery to the mainstream, the work now feels a bit stale. Aside from being the play that helped the then-unknown George C. Wolfe make his name in the New York theater world, the best thing that can be said about The Colored Museum today is that it provides much-needed roles for LaCares Green and the other immensely talented black actors in the cast of this modest, but lively local production.

George C. Wolfe-s The Colored Museum runs at The Company of Angels through March 5.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.