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Wolfe's new direction: out director George C. Wolfe talks about moving from theater to film with HBO's Lackawanna Blues.

Planted firmly in the center of Lackawanna Blues--the film debut of preeminent theater director George C. Wolfe, airing February 12 on HBO--is the heroic character of Nanny, owner of an old-time "colored" boardinghouse in Lackawanna, N.Y. Played here by S. Epatha Merkerson (Law & Order), Nanny is mother, big sister, and voice of authority to the extended family seeking shelter under her roof.

During his 11-plus years as artistic director of New York City's Public Theater, Wolfe first commissioned Lackawanna as a one-man show by actor Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who also happens to be Nanny's real-life surrogate son. "Don't tell it; write it down," Wolfe remembers advising Santiago-Hudson, whose stories about his boardinghouse family included impressions of everybody from a catatonic Vietnam vet to Ricky, the handsome butch lesbian (Adina Porter) who taught him boxing moves as a kid.

Now that Wolfe is leaving the Public, Lackawanna Blues turns out to be the first project of the rest of his life, and it's some send-off. To flesh out the story for film, the well-connected Wolfe called in chits from a theatrical A-list of actors of color: Mos Def, Jimmy Smits, Delroy Lindo, Lotus Gossett Jr., Jeffrey Wright, Charlayne Woodard, Terrence Howard, Rosie Perez, Emie Hudson, Michael K. Williams, Macy Gray, and others.

The Advocate caught up with the busy Wolfe on his cell phone to ask about his plans and his reflections.

What strikes you about this story?

It's a celebration of community, and in some strange way it's a love poem to segregation. Because as a result of segregation and Jim Crow laws, communities had to flourish and create their own businesses, their own infrastructures. They had to claim everybody.

Including the stone-butch character of Ricky. Nobody gives Ricky a second thought. She's just part of everything.

I think file big joke in the black community is: "We don't want no homosexuals around here--Junior, come in and take off your dress and let's eat dinner!" [What's] said to the public has absolutely nothing to do with the cultural truth of the moment. It's not so much an energy of forgiveness as that the community was smart enough to incorporate everybody--because you didn't know who was going to provide you with a resource that you needed to move forward with your agenda.

As the man who lampooned racial stereotypes in The Colored Museum and Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk, you must have been very aware that there were cliches you wanted to avoid with the character of Nanny.

Something ceases to be a cliche if you dance with all the complexities. The nurturing mammy figure in all of the Hollywood movies never had a sexual reality of her own, never had a separate reality. In [1934's] Imitation of Life, [the long-suffering black character Delilah says], "I just want the biggest funeral Harlem's ever seen. I don't want the profits of the pancakes that I came up with." That is the stereotype. Well, this is the exact opposite. Nanny is, "Uh-uh, I'm going to start my own business, 'cause I'm not going to be victimized by anybody."

In a sentence: Where have you tried to take the Public Theater during your tenure?

I tried to make the Public look like the America that I live in--filled with all different kinds of people who sometimes successfully, and a lot of times unsuccessfully, try to negotiate their differences. I cannot stand it when people say, "Oh, he championed minority artists." One, I hate the fucking word. But also, no, no, no! I didn't do any of that. I tried to reflect America, which has people of color in it, which has gay people in it, which has all different kinds of people. My ambition was not to exclude anybody but to expand the definition.
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Title Annotation:television
Author:Stockwell, Anne
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Interview
Date:Feb 1, 2005
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