George C. Wolfe on Being Black and Gay: ‘I Was Aware How Others Perceived Me’

George C. Wolfe on Being Black and Gay: ‘I Was Aware How Others Perceived Me’

The Tony Award-winning director talks his latest film, race and his love for Loretta Devine.

Published October 10, 2014

Two-time Tony Award-winning playwright, director and theater legend George C. Wolfe is responsible for bringing some of the most exciting and original musicals and plays to the stage. His lengthy list of classics includes The Colored MuseumJelly’s Last Jam, Angels in AmericaThe Normal Heart and more. In his latest film, You’re Not You, starring Hillary SwankEmmy Rossum and Josh Duhamel, he delves into the complexities of a relationship between a musician stricken with ALS and her irresponsible college caretaker.

Wolfe chatted with BET.com about You're Not You and discussed how being Black and gay influences his work. The theater icon also weighed in on Broadway's trend of turning movies into stage shows.

You’re Not You is about a pianist whose life is forever transformed when she develops ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease) and her relationship with her caretaker. As a director, what drew you to this script?
I couldn’t remember when I had last seen a film that embodied a complicated, intimate and emotional relationship between two women. These two women were able to get things from their connection that they didn’t get in any other relationship in their lives. There are depths of connections that you can make with people that are large, intense and usually don’t last long, but they transform you in some incredibly powerful way. I found that really fascinating.

The movie reteams you with actress Loretta Devine, with whom you have a long history. What are your thoughts about her and her work?
Loretta was in my first play, The Colored Museum. This was after Dreamgirls but way back in 1986. I’ve known Loretta forever and this was a chance for us to work together again. Loretta is a brilliant actor. She can sing, she’s funny, she’s emotionally deep and complicated and I adore her. Loretta works nonstop, which I’m very, very happy about. She has worked really hard. She put in time in New York off-Broadway, on Broadway and then out in Los Angeles. She’s also an incredibly lovely, lovely human being. I love Loretta deeply.

What do you think of Broadway’s trend of turning movies into stage shows and staging the same revivals year after year?
I did a few revivals. On the Town was one of them and it was one of the few Broadway shows I did that failed. I really don’t find revivals very interesting because I like new work a lot. I feel like if you’re going to pay me, then let me do what I do and let me try to solve some problems. Let me try to make something fly. Why would I do something that everybody has already done the hard work on? But that’s me. Tons of people do revivals really well. I think I’d have to figure out what I can bring to a project that is rare and unique. With movies, you have to figure out why would you do it again? Particularly, if a project was successful in one medium. For me, I'd have to be specific about why I would to do it in another medium.

As a Black, gay man, how would you say the Black and gay experiences influence your work?
Growing up in the South, I was raised to be a Negro boy. I was acutely aware how other people perceived me and that informed my behavior. That worked for a period of time, but it could also be suffocating. The Black experience, which has nothing to do with my play Angels in America, allowed me to understand the Mormon character. He was the character that couldn’t come out to his mother. It allowed me to understand emotional and closeted behavior, because you’re so acutely aware of how you’re perceived. So the psychological ramifications of being raised a Negro illuminated Angels in America for me in an indirect way. It wasn’t the gay person in me that showed up to direct Angels in America — it was the Black American Negro person who did it. On different projects, different pieces of you will show up. Sometimes it’s surprising which piece shows up.

Your work extends from the stage and the screen to museums. Tell us about the new Civil Rights museum project you created.
I helped to create and I was the chief creative officer on The Center for Civil and Human Rights Museum in Atlanta, Georgia. Basically, I had to stage the civil rights story. It was like doing a play but not, because you were collaborating with people. The stories that affected me were the ones we ended up putting in there. I wanted it to have the visceral potency of theater, the intellectual rigor of a museum and the intimacy of film. I used that vocabulary to interchangeably to tell our story. The whole center is really extraordinary. When it opened, Andrew Young and John Lewis were there. I’m very proud and excited about how it turned out.

You're Not You opens in theaters and is available On Demand today.

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 (Photo: Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images)

Written by Ronke Idowu Reeves

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