Authors: George C. Wolfe

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American playwright, director, actor, and producer

Identity: African American

Author Works


Up for Grabs, pr. 1975

Block Party, pr. 1977

Tribal Rites, pr. 1978

Back Alley Tales, pr. 1978

Paradise, pr. 1985 (libretto and lyrics; music by Robert Forrest)

The Colored Museum, pr. 1986 (libretto and lyrics)

Queenie Pie, pr. 1986 (libretto; music by Duke Ellington)

Urban Blight, pr. 1988 (with others)

Spunk: Three Tales, pr. 1990 (adaptation of Zora Neale Hurston’s short stories “Story in Harlem Slang,” “Sweat,” and “The Gilded Six Bits”; music by Chic Street Man)

Blackout, pr. 1991

Jelly’s Last Jam, pr. 1991 (libretto; lyrics by Susan Birkenhead; music by Jelly Roll Morton and Luther Henderson)

The Wild Party, pr. 2000 (libretto with Michael John LaChiusa; music and lyrics by LaChiusa)

Minimum Wage, pr. 2001


Hunger Chic, 1989


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.{$I[A]Wolfe, George C.}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Wolfe, George C.}{$I[geo]AFRICAN AMERICAN/AFRICAN DESCENT;Wolfe, George C.}{$I[tim]1954;Wolfe, George C.}

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 Thulani Davis.

As artistic director of the New York Shakespeare Festival, Wolfe also continues to produce. He received the season’s major assignment in 1993: Pulitzer Prize winner Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (1991), a two-part epic drama based on gay culture in the United States, acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), and politics. That same year Wolfe directed part one of the drama Millennium Approaches, which earned him a Tony Award. Opening in the spring of 1993 to highly enthusiastic reviews, the play received the Pulitzer Prize, won five Drama Desk Awards, the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, and four Tony Awards, including best director. He had numerous projects as administrator: overseeing the Shakespeare Festival’s four-million-dollar annual budget, restructuring the organization’s staff, and developing new plans and programs for the future. The second part of Millennuim Approaches: Angels in America, subtitled Perestroika, opened on Broadway in November, 1993, to critical acclaim.

The success of Wolfe’s plays underscores the fluency of his stage management. In spring, 1994, he directed Twilight Los Angeles, a one-woman show by Anna Deavere Smith about racial tensions that resulted from black motorist Rodney King’s violent arrest, which ultimately sparked riots in Los Angeles. Having been awarded a Tony as best director for Angels in America: Millennium Approaches, Wolfe was nominated for the same award for part 2 of Angels in America: Perestroika. Other awards included the Elizabeth Hull-Kate Warriner Award of the Dramatists’ Guild in 1986 for The Colored Museum; an Obie Award in 1990 for Spunk: Antoinette Perry Award nominations, best book of a musical and best director of a musical, both in 1992, for Jelly’s Last Jam; Tony Award, best director of a play in 1994, for Angels in America: Millennium Approaches; and an Antoinette Perry Award nomination for book of a musical, 2000, for The Wild Party.

Bibliography“George C. Wolfe.” In Contemporary Black Biography. Vol. 6. Detroit: Gale, 1994. An in-depth profile of Wolfe’s life and career achievements.“George C. Wolfe.” In Contemporary Dramatists. 6th ed. Detroit: St. James Press, 1999. A concise summary of the dramatist’s work, with a bibliography and a critical essay.Wolfe, George C. “‘I Just Want to Keep Telling Stories’: An Interview with George C. Wolfe.” Interview by Charles H. Rowell. Callaloo 16, no. 3 (Summer, 1993). A chronicle of Wolfe’s career to 1993. This issue also contains “George C. Wolfe: A Brief Biography,” by John Keene.
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