A Museum of Many Colors: George C. Wolfe Brings the Civil Rights Movement to Vivid Life in Atlanta

By Kompanek, Christopher | American Theatre, November 2014 | Go to article overview

A Museum of Many Colors: George C. Wolfe Brings the Civil Rights Movement to Vivid Life in Atlanta


Kompanek, Christopher, American Theatre


"IF DIDN'T DO THEATRE, I WOULD BE AN HISTORIAN," George C. Wolfe confesses over a cup of tea on an unseasonably cool late August afternoon in Atlanta, Ga. The Tony-winning theatre director and playwright is wearing a sweater with shorts and speaking at breakneck speed, causing his sentences to crash into each other on their way to forming big ideas.

Wolfe envisioned one of his earliest plays, The Colored Museum--a satirical survey of African-American identity and culture--as a series of exhibits an audience would travel through. While the concept ended up being scratched for practical reasons, nearly three decades later, Wolfe finds himself the unlikely curator of an actual exhibit, "Rolls Down Like Water," detailing the struggles of the American Civil Rights Movement from 1954 to 1968 at the newly opened Center for Civil and Human Rights, a wedge-like three-story building flanked by a massive wall of windows in downtown Atlanta.

Four years ago, Wolfe received a call from Andrea Bernstein, who served on the board of New York City's Public Theater when he was that company's artistic director. Bernstein connected Wolfe with Shirley Franklin, Atlanta's mayor at the time, who was a leading proponent of the new center and served as the head of its board.

When Franklin proposed that Wolfe create one of the center's four primary exhibitions, he was intrigued and instantly began research. "It was the same process as when I do a play," he allows. "If it's set in another period, I absorb as much information as I possibly can. I read as many books and try to put the period in my body as much as I possibly can, so there's no distance between me and it, so it feels like it's happening with some immediacy as opposed to through the lens of history."

Wolfe, who holds the title of chief creative officer for the center, is particularly fascinated by what he calls a "living newspaper phenomenon, using the visceral intimacy of theatre, the intellectual rigor of a museum, and the intimacy of a documentary." He traces this style of working back to the creation of his hit shows Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk and Harlem Song, and more specifically to the idea of seeing history through the eyes of the people who made it, an impulse that goes back to his childhood. "There was a very specific moment I remember in third grade--my mother, who was a teacher and a principal, read a chapter of my history book to me. It was about the Pilgrims and the mosquitoes and them getting sick, and, you know, killing Native American people, which was left out of most books at the time. It changed history for me. I was like, 'Oh, this happened to people--fragile, interesting, complicated people.'"

People, to be more specific, like Viola Liuzzo, a housewife from Detroit who became a Freedom Rider, and Claudette Colvin, who preceded Rosa Parks in refusing to give up her seat on a bus. Figures like these drove Wolfe's research and insisted to him (like characters in a play) that he include their stories in the exhibit.

Liuzzo appears in a mural of Freedom Riders' mugshots that's attached to the life-sized side of a bus that hangs prominently in one gallery. Gazing up at the tinted windows, you can't help but put yourself in the place of the brave activists who rode in racially integrated groups into southern towns, often to violent ends. Liuzzo was shot by members of the Ku Klux Klan in Montgomery, Ala.

"These stories are extraordinary and thrilling and heartbreaking," Wolfe avows. "On the opening day of the center, I met Liuzzo's children and a couple of sisters of the four little girls who were victims of the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham. They were very happy that their names were there, because they're usually just referred to as the 'four little girls.'" There's considerably more there than just their names--Wolfe had stained-glass portraits made of Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair that hang to poignant effect toward the back of the exhibit's first floor, which is cloaked in black, echoing the theatrical environments that usually serve as Wolfe's canvas. …

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