Eavesdropping On Two Great Artists

George C. Wolfe can pinpoint the exact moment that sparked his career as a director and dramatist. When he was a fourth grader, his all-Black elementary school in Kentucky was preparing for a visit to a nearby white school to mark what was then known as Negro History Week. “We were supposed to sing this song,” recalls Wolfe, 68. “And our principal told us that when we got to a certain line, we should sing it with full conviction because it would shatter all the racism in the room.” To this day, he can remember standing with his classmates singing, “These truths we are declaring, that all men are the same,” and then suddenly belting out, “that liberty’s a torch burning with a steady flame.” “That’s why I’m a storyteller,” he says. “Because someone told me when I was 10 that if I fully committed with my passion and my intelligence and my heart to a line, I could change people.” 

That belief led him to become both a Broadway powerhouse — a co-writer and the director of the hit musical “Jelly’s Last Jam” (1992) and the director of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” (1993) — and the producer of the Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival, for which he conceived “Bring in ’da Noise, Bring in ’da Funk” (1995). In recent years, he’s devoted more time to making films, including “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” (2017) and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (2020). His latest, “Rustin,” executive produced by Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground and coming to theaters on Nov. 3 and to Netflix two weeks later, tells the story of Bayard Rustin, a civil rights activist who was instrumental in planning the 1963 March on Washington, helping to recruit his friend Martin Luther King Jr. to take part. But Rustin, who was, in Wolfe’s estimation “about as out as a Black man could be in 1960s America,” was largely pushed aside by civil rights leaders who feared that his sexuality would bring shame on the movement. “Here was this monumental human being who changed history, and then history forgot him,” says Wolfe, himself a gay man, who has lived in New York City since 1979. Telling stories like Rustin’s, he says, is “a means to share, to inform, to challenge, to confront the world.”

For the multidisciplinary artist Carrie Mae Weems, 70, those same objectives have influenced more than four decades of photographs, installations and performances exploring themes of class, gender and, most notably, race. The first Black artist to have a retrospective at Manhattan’s Guggenheim Museum (2014’s “Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of Photography and Video”), the Portland, Ore., native who now lives between Brooklyn and Syracuse, N.Y., not only built her reputation as one of America’s most influential photographers but has also elevated fellow artists like Julie Mehretu and Lyle Ashton Harris with her convenings, for which she recruits artists, writers and scholars to come to various institutions for multiday conferences. With works like her “Museum Series” (2006-present) — for which she photographed herself, back to the camera, standing in front of institutions, including the Tate Modern in London and the Pergamon in Berlin — and “Thoughts on Marriage” (1989), which depicts a bride with her mouth taped shut, she has created indelible images of humanity in the face of injustice.

Though contemporaries in adjacent disciplines, Wolfe and Weems had never had a real conversation before meeting on a steamy July day in a downtown Manhattan studio. Here, the two discuss their childhoods, art as activism and what they feel is still left to accomplish.

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