An accomplished playwright and former head of the New York Shakespeare Festival and the Public Theater, Wolfe is best known for directing plays of major cultural import like Tony Kushner's Angels in America.
Born in the segregated city of Frankfort, Kentucky, Wolfe settled in California in his late teens, moving to New York in 1979 to attend grad school at NYU. His first off-Broadway musical, 1985's Paradise, didn't muster much attention, but the first play he wrote and directed, The Colored Museum, a satire on African-American stereotypes, earned the attention of Joe Papp, who produced it at the Public Theater in 1986. Three years later Wolfe's adaptation of Zora Neale Hurston's stories, entitled Spunk, earned him both critical acclaim and an Obie. Following success (and a slew of Tony nominations) for his 1991 musical Jelly's Last Jam, Wolfe landed a full-time gig working under Papp himself at the Public Theater, becoming the venue's resident director in 1993, two years after Papp's death.
It was also in 1993 that Wolfe directed Kushner's AIDS drama, Angels in America, debatably the most significant theatrical work of the decade and certainly the greatest achievement of Wolfe's career. The production earned him a Tony and overwhelming praise from critics. ("Directed with crystalline lucidity" glowed Frank Rich in the Times.) It also made Wolfe the first African-American director to win a Tony for directing a so-called "white" play. Wolfe spent the rest of the decade directing and producing a handful of shows, including Savion Glover's tap dance epic Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk. He also continued to oversee the Public Theater, nurturing the careers of minority playwrights like Suzan-Lori Parks, Diane Son and Nilo Cruz, and drumming up press for the venue by luring film and TV celebs to the stage. But he had his share of failures, too: Both 1998's On the Town and 2000's Wild Party were commercial flops and the institution teetered on the brink of bankruptcy in the late '90s. It managed to rebound substantially by the time he stepped down and turned over the reins to Oskar Eustis in 2004.
Since leaving the Public, Wolfe has turned his attention to the silver screen. He directed Lackawanna Blues, starring Mos Def, Macy Gray, Rosie Perez, and Liev Schreiber, which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival and was aired on HBO. But he also remains active in the theater world. He directed Tony Kushner's Caroline, or Change, which opened in 2005 to excellent reviews (if not the kind of ecstatic panegyrics Angels had elicited). In 2006, he directed a limited-run revival of Bertold Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children starring Meryl Streep.
In the 1990s, Wolfe suffered serious health problems caused by kidney failure. After a year on dialysis, he received a transplant; his older brother William was the donor.
Wolfe, who is gay, lives in the West Village.