It’s said that a prophet is not without honor except in his hometown. But George C. Wolfe, whose prophetic work as a playwright and Tony Award-winning director of Broadway productions such as “Angels in America” and “Jelly’s Last Jam” in the 1990s set a standard that has awed and inspired American theater artists ever since, will break that mold this fall.
Wolfe, 64, who attended public schools and Kentucky State University in Frankfort and continues to work steadily on Broadway — he’s nominated for another Tony Award this Sunday for directing “Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus” — will be honored by the Capital City Museum on Oct. 20 celebrating his achievements in the theater, museum officials announced on Monday.
“George C. Wolfe: At Home on Broadway,” a conversation with the honoree on the stage of Frankfort’s Grand Theatre, will be followed by a banquet at the Kentucky History Center. Proceeds from both events will benefit the Capital City Museum, which plans to use the money to help pay for extensive renovations and a new exhibit highlighting African-American history in Franklin County.
Sheila Mason, a lifelong friend of Wolfe’s and now a member of the museum’s board, recalled a comment that Wolfe made several years ago: “At various times in my career, like standing in front of the Royal Court Theatre in London for the opening night of my play, or in the middle of a technical rehearsal of my first Broadway show ... I remember quite vividly saying to myself, how did this skinny Negro boy from Frankfort, Kentucky, end up here?”
“So we want to bring George here,” Mason told a crowd of museum supporters on Monday, “to show him that we are very proud of this skinny Negro boy from Frankfort, Kentucky.”
There’s a lot to be proud of. In addition to “Angels” and “Jelly’s,” Wolfe’s Broadway credits as a director, producer and/or writer include “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992” (1994), “Bring in ’da Noise/Bring in ’da Funk” (1996), “The Wild Party” (2000), “Elaine Stritch at Liberty”(2002), “Topdog/Underdog” (2002), “Take Me Out” (2003), “Caroline, or Change” (2004) and “Shuffle Along, or, the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed” (2016).
Wolfe has also directed and/or written a number of film and TV projects, many focused on aspects of African-American history — including an adaptation of his first play, “The Colored Museum” (1991); the limited series “Lackawanna Blues” (2006); and “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” (2018).
But it was growing up in Frankfort — the son of Costello and Anna Wolfe, both now deceased — where Wolfe felt his creative juices begin to flow. At the all-black Rosenwald Laboratory Elementary School, and later at the integrated Frankfort High School (where he was president of the Drama Club and the first black drum major), the future Tony winner was first exposed to theater. “It was at Rosenwald,” Mason said, “that George first got the feeling, ’There’s something about the arts that works for me.’”
The segregated Frankfort of the late 1950s and early ’60s also influenced Wolfe in a less positive way. In a 1994 interview with this reporter for the Herald-Leader, Wolfe recalled the painful childhood experience of being denied entrance to a showing of Disney’s “101 Dalmatians at the whites-only Capitol Theatre because he was black.
“It was a profoundly significant thing in my life to deny a child — a whole series of children — access to any place because of the way they look,” he said. “Growing up in the time of segregation forced me to develop an inner strength that has served me well. Much of what I’m doing now is no longer exclusively defined in terms of race, but that is the legacy I inherited: claiming your power in defiance of systems that say that you should have none.”
Wolfe has begun to examine his historical roots in a piece of writing, Mason said in an interview. When she wrote him an email last year telling him about the Capital City Museum’s plans to honor him this fall, he responded in part: “Oddly enough, I started writing about it (his history). So it and Frankfort and Providence, which is where my father’s family was from, have been intensely on my mind all summer long.”
Former Lt. Gov. and State Auditor Crit Luallen, a Frankfort native and former member of the museum board, said she looks forward to the opportunity for Wolfe to draw lines between his career and its beginnings in their shared hometown.
“To have George C. Wolfe come home — one of the most internationally respected leaders in the theater — to have him come home to Frankfort and talk about his history here and how it informed his future, helps to underscore the rich history this community has,” Luallen said. “But it also shows the importance of local history. He understands and appreciates that coming here to support this museum is part of the role he can play in helping to inform the next generation.”
For more information about the event, contact Capital City Museum, (502) 696-0607.