Playwright and stage director George C. Wolfe has received accolades and awards for his work, including Tony Awards for directing Angels in America: Millennium Approaches and Bring in ‘da Noise/Bring in ‘da Funk. Before he became an influential figure on Broadway, he was a Kentuckian who grew up in then-segregated Frankfort.
In 2019, Wolfe returned to Frankfort to be interviewed by Betty Winston Baye in an event at the Grand Theater. Kentucky Life had a chance to speak with Wolfe after the event, and look back at Signature: George C. Wolfe, a profile that appeared on KET in 1996.
“Who I am comes from where I’m from, and growing up in Frankfort, Kentucky, in a segregated town was sort of, in the most bizarre way, the best thing that happened to me,” Wolfe said in 1996. “I was indoctrinated with information and with an energy of my own significance because it was in defiance of what the white world was telling me. Therefore, I carry sort of that arrogance and that sense of self-worth and that sense of, ‘no you can’t tell me no,’ everywhere I go.”
Reflecting on this today, Wolfe still sees his early years in Kentucky as an important part of his identity, but sees the community of people who surrounded him as a primary influence.
“The core of who you are is where you’re from. I think that’s partially true. I still believe that,” he says. “I think I would say probably more of the ocher of who you are springs forth from the people that you are from. As I’ve gotten to know more and more about my family, I think it probably resonates. When I grew up here, for the first seven or eight years of my life, Frankfort was segregated…As a result, I was part of a very protective, insular community. And a lot of times, when one finds oneself at different times in one’s career in challenging equations or one is under attack in the New York Times or whatever, it isn’t what one has accomplished that you hold on to. It’s the knowledge of who you have always been and who you are valued by and who you were loved by even if they are no longer around.”
Frankfort’s high schools were integrated by the time Wolfe reached that age, and he sees dealing with the challenges of race alongside the other difficulties of being a teenager as part of what made him who he is today.
“So much of what high school is is joining clubs and coming up with an identity,” Wolfe said in Signature. “Being funny was a way I acquired an identity, which was how I created security inside of myself, which is a way on some level I acquired some kind of power base.
“Humor’s always been a weapon in some respects for me,” said Wolfe. “It was a certain kind of armor that you put on during high school while everybody else is putting on other kinds of armor.”
Today, Wolfe looks back on those years of his life as a nurturing period where he made lasting friendships and connections.
“But in terms of becoming the person that I wanted to become, or the idea that I wanted to become the artist, to become the person that wanted to have a hand in crafting what the cultural landscape could be, those sorts of muscles came about once I left,” says Wolfe. “And so in many respects, I had to escape what I knew to explore what I didn’t know.”
This segment is part of Kentucky Life episode #2515 which originally aired on February 22, 2020. Watch the full episode.