A Public Farewell

Lauded and embattled, George C. Wolfe calls it quits after 11 years

There's one more theory about the special scrutiny Wolfe attracted, and it's related to what may be the greatest institutional legacy he leaves. As Kushner sees it, the singularly relentless insinuations about fiscal mismanagement were "just plain racism," as are the failures to understand the universal importance of how "season by season by season, the Public has resembled America much more than any other major nonprofit in the country."

On the one hand, having grown up in Frankfort, Kentucky, Wolfe says that as a "child of segregation," he brought with him the principle that if one is able to get in the door, he has the responsibility to "let other people in the room." At the same time, though, he bristles at the word "multicultural," preferring instead to talk about "reality." He has frequently pointed out that when Joe Papp presented, say, Ntozake Shange or Larry Kramer, he was regarded as a forward-thinking producer; but when Wolfe, as a gay African American man, produced Parks or Richard Greenberg (whose gay locker-room drama, Take Me Out, was another successful Broadway transfer), he was scorned for "having an agenda."

The critic Robert Brustein, for one, has upbraided Wolfe for placing political mission above aesthetic judgment by producing artists of color whose works have been less than brilliant. That misses the point. It's easy to praise Wolfe's unflagging support for Parks, but he has been just as stalwart in making space for less prodigious artists of color. It's the same principle that led him to present middling works by Sam Shepard and David Mamet: commitment to artists.

"The mainstream has had to adjust," says Wolfe, as he catches his breath for a moment to think about his proudest achievement. "I have tried to create a space where artists can feel secure about their vision, a place they can emerge from stronger and tougher and braver than when they started."

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