Skip to main content

Toni Collette Discusses Her Role in "The Wild Party."

Australian actress Toni Collette She stars as Queenie, a vaudeville dancer, in “The Wild Party.” Collette is best known for her offbeat role as Muriel in the film “Muriel’s Wedding.” She also had a role in “Velvet Goldmine.” This year she received an academy award nomination for her portrayal of the boy’s mother in “The Sixth Sense.”




Related Topics

Other segments from the episode on April 26, 2000

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 26, 2000: Interview with Tudor Parfitt; Interview with George C. Wolfe; Interview with Toni Collette; Commentary on the language of the stock market.


Date: APRIL 26, 2000
Time: 12:00
Tran: 042701np.217
Head: Tudor Parfitt Discusses His Quest for the Lost Tribe of Israel
Sect: News; International
Time: 12:06

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

RENEE MONTAGNE, GUEST HOST: From WHYY in Philadelphia, this is FRESH AIR.

I'm Renee Montagne, filling in this week for Terry Gross.

The Lemba tribe of southern Africa call themselves Jews. Anthropologists scoffed, but British anthropologist Tudor Parfitt took up the search for the roots of the Lemba anyway. What he found was a people who are the closest thing to being a lost tribe of Israel. On today's FRESH AIR, we talk with Tudor Parfitt about his findings.

Also "The Wild Party" director and playwright George C. Wolfe tells us about his new musical based on a classic poem about jazz era decadence.

And we meet actress Toni Collette, who plays Queenie, the flapper who throws the party.

And with the stock market fluctuations, linguist Geoff Nunberg considers the bullishness of the market.

That's all coming up on today's FRESH AIR.

First, the news.


MONTAGNE: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Renee Montagne.

My guest today is anthropologist Tudor Parfitt, author of "Journey to the Vanished City: The Search for a Lost Tribe of Israel." Tudor Parfitt remembers as a boy in England being entranced by the legend of King Solomon's mines, his mythical palace in southern Africa, the African Queen Sheba. Tudor Parfitt finally traveled to Africa to write a book about the Falashas.

The Falashas had long called themselves the Jews of Ethiopia. In the 1984-85, they were finally repatriated to Israel in a massive airlift called Operation Moses. A few years later, Tudor Parfitt would use DNA to help prove the claims of a different tribe, southern Africa's Lemba people.

It all began when he found himself at a university in Johannesberg, delivering a paper on the Falashas, when he noticed at the back of the hall a small group of black men wearing yarmulkes.

TUDOR PARFITT, "JOURNEY TO THE VANISHED CITY": Yes, they said, We're black Jews. We're just like the Ethiopian Jews that you've been telling us about. They said that they'd seen my book on the Ethiopian Jews, they'd read it. And having learnt something about them from the book, they realized that they were the same, and they assumed, therefore, that they must have been from Ethiopia.

And they saw my disbelieving look and felt rather upset by that. And they asked me to come and spend the weekend with them in their villages in northern South Africa, in what was then Vendaland (ph). And this I did. And at the end of this weekend, I was pretty sure they hadn't come from Ethiopia, but I was equally sure, in some way, that the range of practices that they had and the range of beliefs that they had, the particularly sharp historical traditions that they adhered to, seemed to suggest something quite substantially Semitic and specifically Semitic.

MONTAGNE: That day and the next few days, when you went and visited some other Lemba in Soweto, what did they put forward to you as evidence of their heritage?

PARFITT: Well, it was rather sort of seeing them in the little villages and seeing the kind of obsessions that they had about a form of Kashrut, you know, Jewish ritual food concerns, and questions of simply not eating a whole variety of different animals, which is a completely un-African thing...

MONTAGNE: For instance, they wouldn't eat pork or even hippopotamus, right, because...

PARFITT: Yes, the hippopotamus was never on the menu for them. And this was surely unusual, clearly, in a place where food is at a premium, and famine a practically yearly occurrence. (inaudible)...

MONTAGNE: And why hippopotamus?

PARFITT: Because anything that was considered to be piglike. And so the hippopotamus as well as various other animals, like the wart hog and other things like that, were considered to be piglike. Anything that was piglike was not eaten. And indeed, at a certain point, was punishable by death. So any young Lembas that went off and killed pig of a weekend, as one might, were put to death as a result.

MONTAGNE: And what else, what else? So food prohibitions that were unusual in Africa but very parallel to Jewish food prohibitions.

PARFITT: Yes, then things like the way that they buried their dead, more, if you like, spiritual concerns with the nature of God, an absolute form of monotheism in central Africa, a kind of similar interest with ancestors. Well, ancestors, of course, is a very African thing, but there's a specific mention in their list of ancestors with Jewish ancestors, or at least with biblical ancestors.

I suppose the other thing was the fact that the tribe was subdivided into 12 subclans, and some of these subclans had names which were absolutely and undeniably Semitic in origin, such as the tribe that was called Hamisi (ph), or the tribe that was called Sadiki (ph). These are simply not Bantu words, and they have got, you know, cognate expressions both in Hebrew and Arabic. So these things were quite obviously Semitic.

MONTAGNE: And there -- they had a legend of their origin that took them back to Israel in a sense, or someplace that they thought was near Israel.

PARFITT: Yes, they didn't know where it was, but it -- the legend took them back to this place called Senna (ph), which was in the north. And so the legend that I kept hearing repeated time and time again was that We came from Senna, we crossed Possela (ph), we came to the coast of Africa, the east coast of Africa, and we rebuilt Senna, and then we moved inland and built a great stone city, and there we broke the law of God by eating mice, which as you know are not famously considered to be kosher, and we were scattered among the gentiles. That was the way that they put it, and that was the vocabulary that they used.


MONTAGNE: So intriguing, but not -- you know, pretty slim evidence for anything.

PARFITT: Oh, totally, yes.

MONTAGNE: So OK, next step, what, did -- where did you go from there?

PARFITT: Well, you see, the idea was to -- well, a few things I really wanted to know. I wanted to write a good travel book. There were a lot of good travel books being, you know, written at the time in England, and so my plan was to write one myself. And so in a sense, the journey was a literary journey, you know, I was happy to be with these people following their old traditions wherever they took me, and it would have been a great bonus if I'd found anything at the end of it.

But at the same time, I'm a scientist and an academic, and what I wanted this to be was a well-written book, and -- which actually proved something, and very much in the way of 19th century travel books by people like, you know, Richard Burton and Speak (ph) and all these great African and Middle Eastern travelers, which was, in a way, kind of pretty unlikely towards the end of the 20th century, to find something that could be solved by a journey and solved through the medium of literary writing, if you like.

MONTAGNE: What allowed you to do that was to take a journey through this sort of -- these different cultures, or this one culture, but from different, you know, points along the way. And -- well, for instance, when you left Soweto, you ended up in a northern part of South Africa known as Venda, and these are different people, the Venda, or -- is a different group from the Lemba. But you ran into a lot of Afrikaaners who had settled in that area 170 years ago, and they too believed the Lemba were Jewish.

PARFITT: I was very, very, very amazed to discover that the, you know, that the Boers particularly in the northern part of what was then the Transvaal had any knowledge of the Lemba. But they certainly, they certainly did, and I learnt some quite interesting things about the Lemba from them.

Indeed, I think that one of the very first people to identify the Lemba as Jews was a Boer leader, and himself Kruger, and, you know, the Lemba had worked on their farms and they'd observed their customs and they'd listened to their stories. And even though the story never really kind of got out into the wider South African society, still in certain pockets and in the north and of the Transvaal, people still talked about it.

MONTAGNE: I'm speaking with Tudor Parfitt, who is the author of the book "Journey to the Vanished City: The Search for the Lost Tribe of Israel."

The lost tribe of Israel, the notion of lost tribes of Israel is quite an intriguing one. Did the Lemba claim to be a lost tribe?

PARFITT: They have latterly claimed to be a lost tribe, and I don't think they are a lost tribe in that kind of technical sense. The technical sense would be that they're connected with the 10 tribes who were taken into captivity from Palestine some 700 years B.C. and who have kind of survived in some remote part of the world ever since. I don't think that's very plausible, and nobody, no scholar would really go along with that.

But undoubtedly there are pockets of Jewish communities in different parts of the world which have lost touch with the rest of Jewry, and some of these are being discovered and -- as we speak, if you like. There have been some very exciting advances, and in genetics, let's say, or in ways of looking at oral history, which are helping to confirm at least some of the rather fanciful traditions of a number of peoples in the world.

MONTAGNE: I'm speaking with Tudor Parfitt, author of "Journey to the Vanished City." We'll be back after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


MONTAGNE: ... now with Tudor Parfitt, author of "The Journey to the Vanished City: The Search for a Lost Tribe of Israel."

Ten years ago he began helping southern Africa's Lemba people search for their Jewish roots, a search that ultimately led to DNA testing. When we left off, Tudor Parfitt was talking about his sojourn in southern Africa with the Lemba.

PARFITT: After the first part of my journey, I find myself on the east coast of Africa, round about Zanzibar, having learned a great deal about the Lemba, and I suppose having been able to delve quite a long way into what I thought their probable history was. But I certainly hadn't solved the problem of where they had originally come from, and I kind of sat on the coast of the Indian Ocean and, you know, just thought, Well, this has been a great deal of fun, but I haven't really solved that particular problem.

And I felt a certain poignancy about that, because I'd been specifically asked by, you know, Lemba chief after Lemba chief to go off and find Senna for them if I possibly could. And it seemed to me quite a serious responsibility.

MONTAGNE: Well, tell us about genetic testing and the Lemba. Before this technology came about, you had already traced the Lemba to -- by -- you know, through evidence as far as Yemen.

PARFITT: Yes, from Zanzibar I went back to London, actually, and -- but then a few months later I found myself in the Yemen writing another book. And when I was there, through a series of rather idiotic-sounding coincidences, I stumbled upon it in the eastern part of the Hadremuth (ph), which is really one of the most remote places in the world.

And the kind of evidence was fairly compelling, in the sense that many of the tribal names in the eastern end of the Hadremuth were identical with the tribal names of the Lemba, and the town in the eastern end of the Hadremuth is called Senna, exactly like the Senna of the Lembas' oral traditions. The mysterious Possela -- and they didn't know what it was, if you recall, and they didn't know where it was -- may be the Masela (ph). It's a valley which goes from Senna down to the sea. At the bottom of this valley there was, in medieval times, an extraordinary port called Sahud (ph), which was the great port of exploration for the Arabs, traveling throughout the Indian Ocean, and particularly to the east coast of Africa.

So this seemed to be quite convincing. (inaudible) there was no great rock in the eastern Hadremuth, you know, with graffiti on it saying "The Lemba were here," or anything of that sort. And at this point it seemed like it would be an extremely good idea to try and test this hypothesis using genetic means.

And so then I went back to my Lemba friends and took vast samples of Lemba DNA, as well as a kind of general selection of non-Lemba groups in southern and central Africa. And then we compared those with groups in the Hadremuth.

MONTAGNE: But where -- now, wait, there's two separate things going on here. You tested the DNA of the folks back in Hadremuth, but would they have been Jews?

PARFITT: No, what I was interested in doing at this point was to see whether indeed there was any kind of overlap with the general population of South Arabia, and particularly the Hadremuth, and the general population of the Lemba. That was the point, it was to sort of prove that there was indeed a link with Senna. The whole Jewish thing didn't come into the picture at this point. What I wanted to do was to show that the Lemba did come from outside Africa, and that indeed they were from the Hadremuth in South Yemen.

So the question then was, would it be possible using genetic means to prove in any way their claims to be of Jewish extraction? Now, given that Jews -- well, people have often converted to Judaism, that's one of the ways of being a Jew is to convert to Judaism. It didn't seem likely, but anyway, we tried it. And we'd already done a piece of research on the subject of the Jewish priesthood, and we had isolated a particular haplotype, which is a genetic element, and we discovered that the Jewish priesthood, which is, broadly speaking, people called Cohen or similar names, had -- 55 percent of such people have got a particular marker which can be traced back to a common ancestor who would have lived approximately, give or take, 700 years B.C.


MONTAGNE: Now, now, now the reason it can be traced back is the priesthood, I might -- for those who wouldn't know, it's not the rabbis. I mean, it -- the priesthood is a hereditary caste, if you will.

PARFITT: Yes, that's right, (inaudible)...

MONTAGNE: Father to son to son.

PARFITT: Yes, precisely. Among Jews, the status of priesthood is passed from father to son. There's nothing you can do about it, it simply automatically is transmitted to your son. And this works exactly in the same way as the Y chromosome, which is transmitted exactly -- you know, whatever you want to do, you can't affect the toss from father to son.

And so we discovered on the Y chromosome there was a particular element practically unique to priests. And as I said, both among Ashkenazi priests, that's to say the European branch of Jewry, and among the more oriental branch of Jewry, the Sephardim, and the incidence of this particular thing is much the same, about 55 percent. We discovered in one of the clans of the Lemba, and indeed a clan which claimed to have in the past some ritual significance and some priestly role, the clan is called the Buba (ph), that precisely the same incidence of this particular haplotype was found.


MONTAGNE: Now, wait. Back up. In other words, among Jews, about 50 percent of the priesthood carries this -- people who believe themselves to be in the priesthood carries this gene. Among lay Jews, nonpriests, how many percent?

PARFITT: I can't remember the figure precisely, but let's say between 5 and 10 percent. And they...

MONTAGNE: So how unusual would it be to go to Africa and find this in a tribe or a group or a clan in Africa?

PARFITT: Well, one wouldn't expect it. In the general Bantu population that we have typed, it wasn't -- this haplotype wasn't found. And in a whole range of other human populations that had been typed it has simply not been found. The only populations where it is to be found in a very, very low -- at a very low incidence is, for instance, in the Greek population, which of course throughout history had a great deal of contact with Jews, so it's there in the background, if you like. But generally speaking, it's simply absent.

So it is now being taken as a marker, if you like, of some ancient Israelite population, and it will be hugely useful in the future with, you know, with respect to this kind of historical work.

MONTAGNE: So when the Lemba were tested and this one group showed a very high percentage of this one DNA marker, and, what, the rest also showed a for -- as a group...

PARFITT: Yes, yes, the general Lemba population has got the same incidence of this haplotype as the general Jewish population. And this one clan among the Lemba, the Buba, has got the same incidents as among both the Ashkenazi and the Sephardi members of the, you know, of this ancestral priesthood, inherited priesthood.


MONTAGNE: So is that -- what did that mean? How exciting is that for you and for them?

PARFITT: Well, I think that's pretty exciting. I don't think it's -- it's not exactly saying, Look, this proves that a clan of priests once marched into central Africa. But what it's certainly saying is that a -- there's been a genetic transmission which is almost certainly Jewish in origin, or probably Jewish in origin, which has gone into central Africa. And we didn't know before that Jews had ever in any form got anywhere near central Africa. So it kind of changes our sense a bit of what Jewish history's all about.

So I think that is very, very exciting. And I actually -- in different work that we've been doing on the -- some of the Jewish communities in India, we've discovered that there were traces of a southern exodus of the Jewish people. Everybody knows about the northern exodus of the Jews to Europe and the eastern exodus of the Jews to Babylon and the western exodus of the Jews, if you like, as far as the United States and so on.

But, you know, historically we didn't know anything about this southern, you know, migration of Jews. And some of the Indian populations that have been tested look to be very, very Jewish populations, or populations that claim some kind of Jewish ancestry look very, very similar to those of the Lemba.

MONTAGNE: When this testing was done and -- OK, it doesn't prove anything, but it -- how exciting was it for the Lemba? I mean, how -- what did it do for them?

PARFITT: I think that the effect of this research upon the Lemba has been pretty remarkable. The president of South Africa, Bakey (ph), was in Washington just a few months ago, and he happened to see a television documentary that I -- that was done on my book and on this work. And when he went back to South Africa, he immediately summoned the Lemba to turn up at the presidential palace, and of course that was an extraordinary thing for them. They wrote to me and said that the crown of the Lemba was mine. I was delighted to hear this.

MONTAGNE: (laughs)

PARFITT: And so it's given them a completely different kind of profile in the context of South Africa. And similarly, you know, the DNA evidence had been taken very seriously by many groups of people, (inaudible) a Jewish organization called Kulandu (ph) in the United States, which has been very interested in helping lost Jewish communities. And as a result of the research, they've taken an interest in the Lemba. And certainly already they're getting the kind of aid which other groups in South Africa aren't getting, and particularly in the educational sphere.

And clearly this will impinge hugely upon the Lembas' sense of who they are, where they're going, where they came from, and will -- well, certainly, I'm sure, strengthen their links with Jews throughout the world.

MONTAGNE: Tudor Parfitt, thanks very much for speaking with us.

PARFITT: Thank you very much.

MONTAGNE: Tudor Parfitt is author of "Journey to the Vanished City: The Search for a Lost Tribe of Israel." He chairs the Middle East Center at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.

I'm Renee Montagne. This is FRESH AIR.


Dateline: Renee Montagne, Philadelphia
Guest: Tudor Parfitt
High: British anthropologist Tudor Parfitt's new book is "Journey to the Vanished City: The Search for a Lost Tribe of Israel." Parfitt went to southern Africa to find the Lemba people, who claim to be Jewish. Recently geneticists have found that many Lemba men carry DNA consistent with Jewish ancestry.
Spec: Religion; Science; Africa; Israel

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 2000 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 2000 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Tudor Parfitt Discusses His Quest for the Lost Tribe of Israel

Date: APRIL 26, 2000
Time: 12:00
Tran: 042602NP.217
Head: George C. Wolfe Discusses `The Wild Party'
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:30

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

MONTAGNE: Coming up, bringing to life a classic story in verse of the jazz era. We talk with director and playwright George C. Wolfe. His new musical, "The Wild Party," is about a 1920s flapper who throws a decadent party. Actress Toni Collette plays the dancer Queenie. We'll also talk with her.

And the stock market fluctuations have linguist Geoff Nunberg thinking about the bull and the bear.


MONTAGNE: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Renee Montagne, filling in this week for Terry Gross.

At the height of the Roaring '20s, a former editor of "The New Yorker" penned a long poem that summed up the era. It was called "The Wild Party." Joseph Moncure March's poem has now arrived on Broadway. Director George C. Wolfe is my guest today. He's won a Tony Award for "Jelly's Last Jam," directed "Angels in America," brought -- bring on -- "Bring in da Noise, Bring in da Funk" to Broadway.

George Wolfe co-authored the book for "The Wild Party" with composer and lyricist Michael Lacusa (ph). The musical begins, as does the poem, "Queenie was a blonde, and her age stood still, and she danced twice a day in vaudeville. Gray eyes, lips like coals aglow, her face was a tinted mask of snow."

George Wolfe sees the '20s as a magical period of liberation coming between the First World War and the Depression, liberation iced with decadence. Here's a tune from the show called "Uptown."


MONTAGNE: The basic story is that Queenie, who is living with a...


MONTAGNE: ... a character who's a clown, Burrs, they have a little set-to in the morning, they have an argument in the morning, and they decide to, like, have a party to make up for it, a big party, a fun party, a wild party.

WOLFE: A wild party, da-dum dum.

MONTAGNE: (laughs) Dum. And on stage, then there comes to the door all these characters. One of the main ones is someone called Dolores. Tell us about Dolores.

WOLFE: Dolores Montoya, which I guess -- I think it would be -- is a character in the poem -- is this character of exotic origins, and she has a mantilla in her hair, and in this poem it's this ambiguous identity. And it -- at one point it is -- in the poem it's revealed that it -- the quote, the lines of the poem, "She's somewhat Negro and a great deal Jew." And so...

MONTAGNE: Passing herself off as Spanish aristocracy.

WOLFE: As Spanish Mexican, so that therefore she, you know, so that therefore she could be exotica instead of who she is. And -- which is really interesting, because I think that's so much of what the poem is about. It's about a fractured American identity, if you will. But it's also was -- as we were searching for the character, and we went through various incarnations of trying to find -- once we found sort of thematic idea, trying to put -- because all the characters, if you will, put on masks, have a party face, if you will, that they put on.

And the thing which became intriguing to me about Dolores, or when Michael John (ph) and I were talking, said, She has invented her identity, so of course she invents her past, and is full of all these exotic stories that she's experienced throughout the course of her career. And then at one point we were thinking about various people who were going to play the role. And then Eartha Kitt sprang to mind, and we talked to her about the role, and she loved the role, and that's how he joined the show. And she's amazing in it.

MONTAGNE: Tell us about Eartha Kitt. I mean, there have to be a million stories.

WOLFE: Well, by -- the thing which I can say after having worked with Earth Kitt is she is the healthiest, healthiest human being that I know on the planet. I'd be sitting there directing, and she would be sitting next to me in a chair. And all of a sudden I'd hear, (sound of heavy breathing), Hoof, hoof, hoof. And I'd look over, she'd be doing sit-ups. I mean, she -- just quite literally, she is so vibrant and so strong and so sharp. And I'm not saying this in a condescending way because she's older, I'm saying this, she is so vital and she is so strong and so sharp in relationship to almost anyone else in the cast.

She is just brilliant and vibrant and alive. And the thing that's also amazing, she has been doing her rhythms for so long that we -- that one takes for granted the artistry and the brilliance behind it, though I think a lot of people tend to do. But she has exquisite, exquisite coming timing. And I would have -- give a line with her, and though I'd written it, she would go, "Too many words." And she'd go, "I think it should be this." I mean -- and so we'd negotiate that. But nine times out of 10, she would always be right.

She's just -- she just has an understanding of rhythm and timing that's just flawless.

MONTAGNE: The casting -- we've been talking about the casting, and it's interesting to me, because I gather than Vanessa Williams was originally cast and would have played, if she hadn't gotten pregnant, Queenie.


MONTAGNE: Who -- who -- I -- maybe you are the only person who would have thought of that in a natural way, as opposed to sort of this twisted way of -- what do they call it in the early '80s, cross -- what did they call it...

WOLFE: Nontraditional casting.

MONTAGNE: ... nontraditional casting? But somehow when I heard that Vanessa Williams was going to play the part, it didn't seem like that would have been what you were thinking of. You know...

WOLFE: Really.

MONTAGNE: ... you wouldn't have been reaching for nontraditional casting, you would have been thinking of her as Queenie, even though it's sort of obvious, her being a blonde, her being -- her face being "a mask of snow," that you might think she'd have to be white.

WOLFE: Yes, well, I mean, I was -- I mean, I went back before (inaudible) Vanessa is such an extraordinary performer, and she was -- and we did the (inaudible) the reading of the piece, and she was really quite amazing. And I had huge questions about it, because I think there is going back to sort of American identity, I mean, I think there is this phenomenon that exists in this country that if there -- all one has to do -- now, I'm being a little bit facetious there, but there has been this recurring history of one dying one's hair blonde and instantly one becomes a desirable object.

And so I was intrigued by, if you will, the iconography of blondness, if you will, or the minstrel show of America that includes blondness as an identity. And so I was really, really intrigued by that. But Vanessa was just such an amazing artist. And then at one point when we were rehearsing on the piece with Vanessa, she said, "Am I a light-skinned black woman who is passing, and that's why I paint my face white?" And it became -- it was an interesting question. I said, "I don't know, I don't know, let's keep working on it for a while."

And I really wasn't sure for the longest time, because to me, I -- it's so fascinating, because once you introduce race into any work of art, it fundamentally ends up being exclusively about race as opposed to being about race as a metaphor for something larger or something grander, if you will, or something more complicated. So that therefore I was dancing around it, and then she got pregnant, and it ceased to become an issue.

But it became issues in other respects, because to me, one of the things that intrigues me about "The Wild Party" is the idea that her face was "a tinted mask of snow," and I was intrigued by the idea of someone painting on their face. And also by the time I had joined the project, Burrs, who is played by Mandy Patankin, Michael John had made a decision to make him a blackface performer.

So I found that really, really, really, really fascinating that you have this one character of this couple who paints his face black as part of his career identity, and you have this other -- his wife, if you will, his common-law wife, who paints her face white as a means of covering up her past, or that which is unknown about her.

And so that just became a very intriguing dynamic. And I have a feeling if, if, if, if a black woman ended up playing the role, and I think one day hopefully a black woman will, it would give another color, another dynamic, if you will, no pun intended, to the piece.

MONTAGNE: The blackface that Mandy Patankin dons as Burrs, that also -- as you just said, it's -- it isn't in the book, he was a circus clown type with a red nose, I think, in the poem. "The New York Times," in its review, which you had many reviews that were glowing, "The New York Times" was not, it took issue with that. It suggested that that had no meaning, that it was tossed in as a way to arrive at a -- something at the end of the play, which I won't reveal, because it's part of the -- you know, bit of a surprise in the ending. But that it was -- it wasn't -- it was just a sort of -- a thing you added that you needed to move forward at the end.

I wonder what you think of that. I mean, (inaudible)...

WOLFE: Well, I think, one, I think it was an incredibly foolish review, and not even really a review but a -- I don't know what it was, it was a bad term paper. And one of the things that I was -- that I -- when we were working on the piece, I saw "The Jazz Singer" for the first time in a very, very long time, and I was incredibly affected by it, one, because I think it's an amazing movie, and Jolson's performance is phenomenal. But there was this scene in which after he has been kicked out by his father, and he's (inaudible)...

MONTAGNE: This is -- this would have been Al Jolson, who would have been a cantor...

WOLFE: Al Jolson, (inaudible)...

MONTAGNE: ... being kicked out by his Jewish father...

WOLFE: Exactly.

MONTAGNE: ... who didn't like...

WOLFE: (inaudible)

MONTAGNE: ... that he was playing secular -- he was singing secular music.

WOLFE: Yes, music, exactly. And that he -- once he's kicked out and he goes on the road and he's touring around in Broadway, and touring around in America, and he's getting ready to come back to Broadway. And he has not talked about his past. And there was this incredibly startling, wonderful, and brilliant scene where he's sitting there, and he starts to put on blackface makeup. And all of a sudden, by virtue of putting on the mask, he is able to talk about for the first time in the movie the pain of what he felt when his father kicked him out.

And I was just became very intrigued by that. And a number of scholars have written about the permission of the mask, or very specifically the permission of what the blackface mask gave permission to experience, to say, to do. And so that therefore it became the -- that's why I was speaking earlier about the issue of race, that once you introduce race, that to me the phenomena of being a blackface performer is very probably very strongly a cultural reality that existed at the time, but also at the time it was on its way out, if you will. It didn't go out really fully until the '40s, as, you know, as you can look at any of the, you know, movies that were still done, I mean, "White Christmas" has Bing Crosby in blackface.

So it's just really very fascinating to me. But I was just intrigued by the idea that there was this performer who was on his way to becoming a dinosaur, if you will, and it was also happening at a time when Hollywood, Broadway, particularly, was going through a period where black performers on Broadway were very much so in vogue. So it just to me became another really interesting cultural texture. And whether or not somebody from "The New York Times" or any other paper decides that one is trying to paint something on, that's, to me, is more reflective of their thought process than it is of mine.

MONTAGNE: When you came to cast Queenie finally for the actual production, you cast Toni Collette, and most people would have known her at that time as starring in "The Sixth Sense," quite a different sort of character, as the mother of this child. Why?

WOLFE: Why did I cast her?


WOLFE: She's brilliant. It's very easy. She came in and we met, and she and I instantly had this strong energy connection between us. And I found her just bold and dynamic and smart and fearless. And then she sang, and I went, OK, that's -- it's no longer an issue, OK, here's Queenie. It was just like that, it was -- I mean, it was like -- it was just -- it was -- you -- certain things you just know. And that was -- I just knew. I said, This is it.

MONTAGNE: George C. Wolfe, director of the Broadway musical "The Wild Party." We'll talk to the star of the show, Toni Collette, after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.




MONTAGNE: The recent wild fluctuations in the stock market has gotten our linguist, Geoff Nunberg, thinking about the origins of the language we use to describe the market.

GEOFF NUNBERG, LINGUIST: The bear began to growl almost immediately after the English stock exchange was first established around the beginning of the 18th century. That was the period when the market was caught up in the wild speculations in the South Sea Company that launched the phrase "stock bubble." As the stock price soared, people started selling shares they didn't own in hope of buying them back more cheaply if the stock went down later on.

The traders called this "selling the bearskin," a phrase that originated in Aesop's fable about the hunter who sells the skin of a bear before he's caught it, a story that's mentioned in Shakespeare as well.

From there, using "bear" to refer to people who thought the market was going to fall was only a short step. And not long after that, the bear was joined by his optimistic alter ego, the bull. It isn't clear where he came from. My theory is that "bull" started out as a variation of "pull," which was the name of the stock market maneuver that we now refer to as a call.

But the main thing was that it made for a euphonious pair of beasts. Of course, nowadays you don't hear much about Aesop on CNBC unless somebody's talking about an employee's stock ownership plan. But the bull and the bear have hung on. In fact, they're just about the last animals left that are still doing symbolic work for us. They're like characters from a medieval bestiary, the stern and saturnine bear, bristling with admonitions about irrational exuberance, the bulls with their irrepressible optimism and, well, ebullience, a word that comes from the Latin word for "bubble," by the way.

It's one of those eternal comic oppositions that's bred in the bone. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Mr. Pickwick and Sam Weller, Oscar and Felix, Greg and Dharma. When you think about it, you know exactly what they've each got in their portfolio.

In fact, the market menagerie is populated with all sorts of beasts, dead cat bounces, the dogs of the Dow, alligator spreads, porcupine provisions, bedbug letters. And it seems half the ads you see for investment firms feature images of leopards, wolves, and lions, not to mention the bunnies and lambs who lack the good sense to avail themselves of the advertiser's services.

It's the stuff of the fables and proverbs that the whole conversation is awash with. Over the past couple of weeks, I had the feeling you could gauge the decline of the NASDAQ just by counting the number of times you heard that line, "Don't try to catch a falling knife," as analysts warned investors not to try to chase the lows.

It's hard to escape this talk. There's never been a time when so many people were conversant with the language of the market, with the help of Internet chat groups and the cable channels that offer bell-to-bell market yammer. You hear them in the corner store, in the barbershop. The other day, I was even forced to listen to a market wrap-up while I was on hold to order tickets for a poetry reading.

It's a pretty jumbled dialect, all those proverbs and folksy expressions mixed with a barrage of technical terms like "moving averages" and "volatility indexes." But that makes sense in a world where nobody really knows what's going on. If you're selling Microsoft to me at 66 1/2, one of us is probably making a mistake, and we won't know who it is until after the close. It's like any other comic fable, the action starts off with people reciting spells and formulas that promise a kind of magical control, and it winds up with them repeating the wisdom they got from their grandmother.

That's the great consolation of proverbs. You can always find one to justify whatever you want to do. For every "absence makes the heart grows fonder," there's an "out of sight, out of mind." For every "take care of the pennies and the pounds will take care of themselves," there's a "penny wise and pound foolish."

Actually, it turns out that there are also two versions of Aesop's fable about the man who sold the bearskin before catching the bear. In one of them, the bear kills the hunter. In the other, he lets him off with a warning. If you're holding stocks right now, you can pick the one that suits you. And remember, fortune favors the brave.

MONTAGNE: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist at Stanford University and the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center.

FRESH AIR's reviews and interviews are produced by Phyllis Myers, Joan Toohey Wesman, Amy Salit, and Naomi Person, with Monique Nazareth, Ann Marie Baldonado, and Patty Leswing, research assistance from Brendan Noonam.

I'm Renee Montagne.

Dateline: Renee Montagne, Philadelphia
Guest: George C. Wolfe
High: Playwright and director George C. Wolfe wrote and directed the hit Broadway musical "Jelly's Last Jam," about Jelly Roll Morton. Wolfe also wrote the play "The Colored Museum," a satire about the black experience in America. His newest musical is "The Wild Party," based on the long-lost classic poem about the roaring twenties by Joseph Moncure March. It's currently playing at the Public Theatre on Broadway.
Spec: Entertainment; Minorities; Music Industry; Art

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 2000 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 2000 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: George C. Wolfe Discusses `The Wild Party'
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Daughter of Warhol star looks back on a bohemian childhood in the Chelsea Hotel

Alexandra Auder's mother, Viva, was one of Andy Warhol's muses. Growing up in Warhol's orbit meant Auder's childhood was an unusual one. For several years, Viva, Auder and Auder's younger half-sister, Gaby Hoffmann, lived in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. It was was famous for having been home to Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, Virgil Thomson, and Bob Dylan, among others.


This fake 'Jury Duty' really put James Marsden's improv chops on trial

In the series Jury Duty, a solar contractor named Ronald Gladden has agreed to participate in what he believes is a documentary about the experience of being a juror--but what Ronald doesn't know is that the whole thing is fake.


This Romanian film about immigration and vanishing jobs hits close to home

R.M.N. is based on an actual 2020 event in Ditrău, Romania, where 1,800 villagers voted to expel three Sri Lankans who worked at their local bakery.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue