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.
Carrie Mae Weems: Let’s start at the beginning. Where are you from, George?
George C. Wolfe: I’m from Frankfort, Ky., which was segregated for the first eight years of my life. I went to a grammar school that was part of a Black university, Kentucky State. And I went [to college] there for one year but ran away because I wanted to become another version of myself. I went to Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., and then to Los Angeles. At a certain point, it became clear that I needed to leave L.A. [to direct theater], so I came to New York, and that was that.
C.M.W.: What made you want to make this new film?
G.C.W.: I wanted to explore the brilliance of this organizational mind who put together the March on Washington in seven weeks. It’s about the idea that activism is not a noun or a title; it’s a verb — it’s the doing of. There’s a scene in the film that was inspiring to me, where Bayard [who is played by Colman Domingo] is talking to young kids who’re organizing, and he tells them that every night they should think through every detail and ask themselves what they’re missing, what they haven’t thought about.
C.M.W.: When did you learn about Bayard Rustin? I didn’t know anything about him.
G.C.W.: I helped create a museum in Atlanta called the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, which opened nine years ago, so I got into some of these stories that I didn’t know, like Jo Ann Robinson, who was the brain behind the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and Claudette Colvin, who refused to give up her bus seat before Rosa Parks. I became obsessed with ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Often, history forgot them.
C.M.W.: Yes, so many people! I knew very early on that whatever I did as an artist, I wanted to broaden the field. So I would pick up the phone and call these museums and say, “I love your collection, but I noticed there are actually no women or African Americans. I’ve been doing quite a bit of research in the area, and I’d love to come by and share with you what I have.” And they were like, “Who? What?” I was just 23. But I’d say, “OK, you don’t have any idea who I am, but I do know that this work is important, and I absolutely need you to look at it.”
G.C.W.: And what would they say?
C.M.W.: “Wellll, OK.” That’s how I became known as a photographer, by doing all that work. I started reading about all these artists when I was a young person, and I made little video projects about people like [the Harlem Renaissance photographer] Roy DeCarava. It was born out of deep curiosity: “Who were those who came before you? Who widened the path? And how do you acknowledge them? And then who’s coming behind you? And how do you broaden the path for them?” In 2014, when I became the first African American to have a retrospective at the Guggenheim, I thought, “This is kind of cool, but it would be really great to have a fabulous convening of a couple of hundred artists and bring all of them to the institution for four or five days and just rock it out.” I continue to do that. I’m doing another one in the fall [at Syracuse University, centered on contested monuments].
G.C.W.: I’m obsessed with one aspect of your “Museum Series”: You have your back to us, looking at these buildings, and what it ignites inside of me is, “Are you going to invade it? Are you going to tear it down? Are you going into it, and will it change you? Or will you change it?” Those questions are born out of your proximity to the buildings. If you were farther away, it would say something was keeping you from going in. If you were closer, it would tell the viewer you’d already made the decision to enter. There’s a danger and a possibility of being in the in-between.
C.M.W.: It allows so much for the viewer. I started making those pieces in 2006, and it’s only recently that institutions have begun paying attention to them. Artists are often ahead of the curve in the ways we pose questions; museums are just now arriving at that moment of interrogation. I always think of George Floyd as the straw that broke the camel’s back. His death [in 2020] allowed so much to be brought into focus.
G.C.W.: What is your responsibility [when infiltrating] these institutions? It was made very clear to me at a young age that if you come with a certain skill set, it’s your responsibility to invade.
C.M.W.: To engage.
G.C.W.: For me, it was very specifically invading. Get inside, open up the doors and the windows so that everybody else could come in.
C.M.W.: I understand, but I think about it slightly differently. For me, it’s not invasion; it’s claiming of space. It’s really understanding the uniqueness of this voice and what we have to offer — our right to be in that space and to change it by our very presence. I’ve started to think about resistance as an act of love.
G.C.W.: And commitment.
C.M.W.: And commitment, always. I think this is both our gift and our burden. You’re never just George. You’re always in a group. It’s a part of the condition of being African American in this country. You’re forced by your identity to negotiate the space between who you are, what the group is and what your responsibilities are in relation to both. This has given us, as a people, ingenuity — a level of inventiveness, expansiveness, artistic integrity and a grace that’s truly profound. Without us, this nation would truly suffer. Are you an activist?
G.C.W.: I think my work is activism. I do my job with a sense of joy and aggression and defiance.
C.M.W.: I was very lucky that I had my father [the owner of a salvage company] and my mother [a seamstress] and my family. My father would say, “Remember that you have a right.” My earliest memories are of that. So that’s given me a sense of confidence, that I just feel very comfortable in the world, wherever I am. I love knowing about other cultures, but our quest to be human is what interests me. I think we are still crawling toward our humanity. We haven’t arrived yet.
G.C.W.: My theory is that everything is a muscle. Love is a muscle. If you don’t use it, it atrophies. And curiosity is one of the most important muscles, curiosity about the world and about others. My first memory was of George Wolfe, whom I’m named after, my grandfather [a carpenter]. He would build a big tower of blocks and then I would knock them down and he would applaud. Defiance!
C.M.W.: At this stage, my concerns are more focused on the spiritual dimensions of my life. I made a small performance piece called “Grace Notes: Reflections for Now” [for the Spoleto Festival U.S.A. in Charleston, S.C.] after the 2015 killings at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. At the funeral of one of the victims, [President] Obama came to the stage, spoke for a while — and then, finally, the only thing he could do was sing “Amazing Grace.” He had to go to a spiritual place in order to deal with the tragedy of that event.
Over the past few years, I’ve collected over 400 photographs of primarily Black men who’ve been killed in the United States since around 2000. I’m chronicling this history of violence. There are days when I have to leave the studio early because I’ve been looking at murder all day. Ultimately, artists deal with similar ideas over and over during the course of a lifetime, so there’s a set of primary ideas that you’re always coming back to. For instance, I produced [an installation and performance] piece called “The Shape of Things” (2021), which looks at the circus of politics and the rise of Trumpism, and the extraordinary violence that has been inflicted on people of color as the country moves from white to Black and varying shades of brown. But even though you’re looking at tragedy, the real work is to find where hope resides within that tragedy.
G.C.W.: This country is at its most interesting when people cross borders. The culture that phenomenon creates is astonishing. So the stories of my family are driving me now: the monumental, ordinary, astonishing, brilliant people who said, “The border that you’ve crafted doesn’t serve my definition of myself, so let me go charging through it.” That’s what Bayard did. It’s what our ancestors did. They said, “I’m bigger than your definition of me.”
C.M.W.: I decided there’s a part of what I’m doing that needs to be done out of my human ingenuity, but I’m not interested in persuading anybody about anything. The work has within it all kinds of questions, but the way in which the vast majority of America views me? I couldn’t care less. I just want to get this work done.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Hair: Kiyonori Sudo. Makeup: Linda Gradin