The Grand Theatre was packed Sunday for theater great George C. Wolfe’s hometown visit.
The crowd listened intently and broke into intermittent applause as Wolfe shared stories of his work in theater and film, along with his personal and artistic philosophies at the homecoming event “George C. Wolfe: At Home on Broadway,” which was sponsored by the Capital City Museum.
Robert Barry Fleming, artistic director of the Actors Theatre of Louisville, introduced Wolfe. Barry, a Frankfort native, performed in Wolfe’s production of “Jelly’s Last Jam” at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles in 1991.
“It’s quite difficult to overstate his status on Broadway and the arts and culture scene nationally and internationally,” Barry said of Wolfe. “He is a lion of the theater and a legend.”
Journalist Betty Baye interviewed Wolfe on the warmly lit stage.
“It’s fascinating to me to come back,” Wolfe said, noting the irony that he was once denied entry into theaters like the Grand because of his race. “People telling you ‘no’ are one of the most valuable steps for you evolving the muscles you need so that you end up saying 'yes' to yourself,” Wolfe told the crowd.
When Baye asked him about “dream killers” who tried to stop him from pursuing a successful career in theater and film, Wolfe acknowledged that many people also helped him along the way.
“I work very hard but also I’ve been very lucky,” he said. “People saw something in me.”
Wolfe recalled in particular his grandmother’s influence on his life. “My grandmother protected me in an extraordinary way and allowed me to live inside my imagination.”
Wolfe announced that, for the first time, he is developing a screenplay set in Frankfort. The story is set between 1924 and 1954.
“I’m really intrigued by the dynamics of the South,” he said, revealing only that the story is about “people who crossed boundaries.”
“You’re gonna love it, Frankfort,” he told the crowd to uproarious applause.
Wolfe emphasized the importance of believing you are magical and can do extraordinary things. “You exist in every single story,” he said.
In discussing how he has mined the African-American cultural experience in his plays and films, Wolfe said the question of survival fascinates him.
“People need to see themselves on stage,” he said. Acknowledging the universal nature of art, he said, “Every human being is figuring out how they’re going to turn the corner.”
Wolfe is currently editing “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” a Netflix movie he directed this summer in Pittsburgh. The film stars Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman.
Wolfe said that, along with his many accomplishments in film and theater, he is extremely proud of helping create the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta.
He recalled that black people had to train for weeks and months to practice keeping their hands on the lunch counter while being harassed by others. One exhibit features a lunch counter where visitors place their hands on the counter. The exhibit simulates the experience of someone kicking the stool, forcing the visitor to see how long they can sit without lifting their hands to protect themselves.
“My vision was to try to make real the civil rights stories,” Wolfe said. “The real stories of how things happen are so much more amazing and unbelievable and fascinating.”
After Sunday's on-stage interview, students from the Frankfort High School Drama Club presented Wolfe with a photo of the school’s first drama club and a photo of its current members. They also gave him a drama club T-shirt and a gold Oscar-type statue engraved with his name, noting that he is the role model for their program.
Frankfort author and filmmaker Jerry Deaton announced the creation of the George C. Wolfe Scholarship for the Arts.
The event was followed by a social hour and dinner to honor Wolfe at the Kentucky History Center. Sunday’s events were a fundraiser for the Capital City Museum. Proceeds will go toward creating new museum exhibits, refurbishing old ones and acquiring more artifacts.
“It’s about time that Frankfort said, 'Hey thanks, George,'” said Capital City Museum board member Steve Brooks, acknowledging the success of the evening’s celebration. “It’s one of these events that’s really brought the community together.”
According to John Downs, curator of the Capital City Museum, the event raised close to $40,000.
“I can’t tell you exactly how much we made, but we’re very pleased with the outcome. The event was wildly successful beyond our dreams,” he added.
From the stage, Wolfe told the audience: “My definition of theater is people sitting in the dark watching people in the light talk about what an awkward, horrible, fragile, amazing thing it is to be you.”
Most would agree that’s exactly what happened Sunday when Wolfe came back home.