Required Reading: The Plays of George C. Wolfe

Required Reading: The Plays of George C. Wolfe

What plays should be considered culturally required reading? What plays that once might have held that honor no longer stack up? In this new series, Cavan Hallman explores touchstone works of theater and their place in today’s world.


“The Colored Museum” is not a great play.

It doesn’t have any of Aristotle’s tidy little unities. It doesn’t have Brecht’s cool intellectual distance; the author, George C. Wolfe, is so preoccupied with pain, after all. It’s hard to excise emotion from pain.

“The Colored Museum” doesn’t even do a very good job of exploring its titular metaphor. There is an obligatory framing sequence with a stewardess on a slave ship, but it’s hard to know if the ship is heading towards the museum, if it’s heading out of the museum, if it’s stationary inside the museum—a fancy simulation ride like the old “Body Wars” at Epcot—or what the museum’s about. If the individual scenes of the museum are meant to be exhibits then I have no idea what is this institution’s organizing principle. If this were a Museum-museum, then I’d be just as confused by these scenes as by seeing Francis Bacon and Roy Lichtenstein paintings hung together.

“The Colored Museum” is not a great play. It is possible even to say that it is not a play at all. It is, however, a phenomenal piece of theater.

I’m being semantic here because we’re talking about literature and plays and words, and semantics can actually mean something, so let me be clear when I say again that “The Colored Museum” is not a great play.

“Sleep No More,” the self-guided promenade experience based on The Scottish Play—that’s not a great play, but it is incredible theater.

TJ & Dave, the epically talented Chicago improvisers who create the most believable characters in the strangest scenarios without even a single suggestion—I don’t know if they would call their work plays. It doesn’t matter. Everyone should see them. And “The Colored Museum,” without being a great play, gets my wholehearted endorsement for Required Reading.

The Colored Museum” is a series of dramatic sketches detailing the lives and struggles of Black people in the 80s. We’ve got a Snap Queen, a disturbed Vietnam veteran, and some biting commentary on Black lifestyle magazines and cliched domestic dramas in the vein of Hansberry. There are wild turns from the tragic to the comic, often within the same sketch, and the results are frequently pure horror. The writing, the imagery, the language: it’s all so bold. It hasn’t been squeezed into bland neutrality—it is committed to its episodic structure and it entertains without fail.

Rema Webb and Nathan Lee Graham in a 2015 production of THE COLORED MUSEUM at Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

 

When analyzing “The Colored Museum” as a play, there is a lack of connective tissue, and no narrative to speak of. Each sketch seems to take place as its own self-contained theatrical event. But to call the structure “sketchy” is not an insult. A sketch doesn’t need a complete dramatic action. It can just be an exploration of a concept, a good joke, a song. To be a sketch is to exist in an identifiable form, not a value judgment.

“The Colored Museum” succeeds where so many sketches fail because George C. Wolfe is good at endings, shocking and memorable. Even “SNL,” the King of Sketch, can’t consistently figure out a way to end their scenes on something other than an ironic groan.  

And a sketch doesn’t have to be funny. Neither does improv (people in front of brick walls prove this every night).

I suppose it’s possible that “Symbiosis,” one of the Exhibits in “The Colored Museum” could be staged with a comic touch (maybe give it the “Dorf On Golf” treatment) but the act of a grown man trying to murder the embodiment of his own conscience, that just sounds horrific.

By combining compact pieces of self-contained narrative precision with grand visual gestures and an emotionally resonant backdrop—the pain of the contemporary person of color—“The Colored Museum” elevates the sketch to the level of high art.

I want to think very carefully about how this List we’re compiling might be used in a classroom setting, because that’s where the original List was introduced to me.

What is Art? What is a Play?

Whether it’s in undergrad or graduate schools, I end up at these institutions where a capstone class forces each student to periodically pause from scribbling in his or her therapeutic coloring book and answer a question like: What is Art? What is a Play? (Note: the final noun is always capitalized. Do I Care?)

In the exercise above, it would be useful to have a script of irreproachable theatrical value that also affords the opportunity to discuss the nature of play-hood. “The Colored Museum” gets us there.

George C. Wolfe earns another spot on the List for another play that is not a play.

Jelly’s Last Jam” is a musical. And George C. Wolfe’s intellectual approach to musical theater adaptation could not be more brilliant in its understanding and manipulation of structural unity.

Structural unity, clearly, is a thing that excites me, and “Jelly’s Last Jam” takes advantage of the very form that is the American Musical to add depth to its tale.

First, the story: Jelly Roll Morton, a privileged Creole, classically trained on the piano, pretty much invents jazz.

With the help of a god-like mystic named Chimney Man, Jelly in his dying moments looks back on a life that swung between distant peaks and valleys of success and depression. Even at his peak, Jelly was always in pain, often lashing out. That’s the play.

“Jelly’s Last Jam” and “The Colored Museum,” are liberal with their pain. If the psychological or physical pain isn’t apparent enough, a literal reminder will likely be spoken soon.

“Pain.”

This is just as true in George C. Wolfe’s “Spunk.”

Pain.

“Spunk” was on the old List, but I’m kicking it off in favor of “Jelly’s…”

“Spunk” is an acclaimed collection of shorter works based on the prose of Zora Neale Hurston, three one-acts that are strung together with bluesy interludes. There’s a clever use of code-switching as characters narrate their own lives, but the genius of this text is largely the work of the original author. It’s tempting to include this play on the List because 1) it’s excellent; and 2) any excuse to expose more readers to Zora Neale Hurston is a good one, but “Spunk” the play shrinks in comparison to the authorial expertise Wolfe wields in adapting the life of Jelly Roll Morton into a musical.

“Pain” is present in Wolfe’s musical just as it is in his other plays, but with the character of Morton, the playwright finally finds the perfect balance of the Universal and Specific.

The Universal is what makes a fairy tale good. Prince Charming isn’t 5’11” with wavy hair and a pronounced chin. He’s Prince Charming. He is Universal, so he can be a Universally blank and Universally pleasing canvas.

The Specific is what makes a short story good. This is how a Specific person does a Specific thing, and the Specific thoughts that she Specifically thinks, in detail.

Dramatists neither write true fairy tales, nor true literature of any kind. Our work is meant to be interpreted, to exist beyond a page, so this exchange between the Universal and Specific always requires navigation, and often results in a paradox.

For instance: By filtering the Pain of the Black experience through a Specific character (Jelly Roll Morton) rather than a Universal character (an archetypal character like the anonymous veteran in “The Colored Museum”), George C. Wolfe actually creates a more Universally recognizable vessel for Pain.

I love “Jelly’s Last Jam.” Contradictions and hybridity.

The American Musical is a hybrid.

Music. Dance. Theater.

The Creole is a hybrid.

French, Native-American, African.

Jelly was trained on classical piano, but made his (fleeting) wealth in juke joints.

Jelly is famous for playing keys, but his genius is translated for the stage into virtuosic tap-dancing.

Contradictions abound. And George C. Wolfe’s decision to use an intrinsically hybrid form to tell the story of a man struggling with his hybridity makes me want to squeal with glee.

It’s always difficult to convince an audience that an actor pretending to be a brilliant artist is actually brilliant enough to make brilliant art that isn’t acting.

Say that ten times.

And think about any movie about writers. I only ever believed Paul Giamatti in “Sideways” and Robin Williams in “The World According to Garp” could have written the books their characters wrote. I don’t know if Ethan Hawke has ever played an author, but I imagine him at a typewriter, and I don’t buy it—and he’s published a novel.

Wolfe’s translation of Jelly Roll Morton’s theatrical skill from piano to tap dancing not only eliminates a mode of investigation, an avenue of disbelief (are his fingers really touching the right keys?), but it makes the content physical, theatrical. It uses a body in space, and if you’re the original production with Gregory Hines playing Jelly, you want to get your dancer dancing early, and often.

The tap is a percussion instrument requiring force. And such a great part of Gregory Hines’ brilliance is the seductive grace he adds to what is an inherently aggressive form. When I imagine him in the role of “The Roll” I see the thorough approach to contradiction and hybridity that author and director Wolfe each applied to “Jelly’s Last Jam.”

Right, did I mention he directs too? George C. Wolfe helmed “Jelly’s…,” was Artistic Director at The Public, and directed the premieres of “Angels in America” and “Topdog/Underdog.” Wolfe has been a major theater influencer for over thirty years, perhaps the most influential when considering the sum of his work as a writer, director, and producer. We’re happy to have him join the List, and excited to add two popular contemporary forms, a sketch collection, and a musical.

The List (1995) — “The Colored Museum” by George C. Wolfe; “Spunk” by George C. Wolfe

The List (2017) — “The Colored Museum” by George C. Wolfe; “Jelly’s Last Jam” by George C. Wolfe

 

Read other editions of Required Reading here.

About author

Cavan Hallman

Cavan Hallman makes theater and watches NBA basketball. His plays have been performed in Ireland, New Orleans, New York, Chicago, and on tour for the last seventeen years as writer/director for Chicago’s Windy City Players.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *