Let’s just make it clear from jump – as a white woman, it is inherently difficult for me to talk about race and the importance of black media for women and people of color in general. At the very best, it might sound like I’m talking from a place of privilege. At worst, I’m talking down to my audience and insulting a group of which I know very little from a personal perspective. But as a musical theater person, I feel like I can say a few words about the placement of The Wiz as a cultural artifact, and why the recent live production of the musical has the power to change not just the live musical, but the genre of “black theater” for a national audience.
I grew up participating in musical theater. Let’s face it: as an upper middle class white girl from the bullseye center of Connecticut, I was not participating in a bastion of diversity. I’ve done the musical Bye Bye Birdie (one of the whitest musicals ever written) four times, and Annie Get Your Gun (one of the most racist musicals ever written prior to its heavy rewrites for the 1999 revival starring Bernadette Peters) twice.
I have also done two productions of The Wiz with an all-white cast, and while I had a blast and the musical was sung and acted incredibly well both times, it does cause me to feel some discomfort to look back at the videos of my performance in that show and think to myself “These lines should NOT be coming out of my mouth.” The flow and rhythm of the book, in a white mouth, sound disturbingly minstrel at worst, redneck at best.
This isn’t just something tied to The Wiz. I’ve done two productions of Once on This Island, a musical by the writers of Ragtime that is deliberately addressing inter-race diversity. The central love story is about class divisions between a poorer, darker-skinned girl and a richer, lighter skinned black man in the Caribbean. The book is written to be spoken in a Caribbean dialect, which when spoken by white people sounds like, well, a bunch of white kids trying to speak like Shaggy. You can’t get to the root of what those musicals are trying to achieve with white kids, no matter how well it’s sung.
White people tend to claim things for their own and get mad when the other cultures try to take it back. It’s part of our genetic fabric to look at something fun that another culture is doing and say “I want that. And let’s just forget you ever thought of it.” It’s why cultural appropriation is such an issue. At the same time, there are VERY few moments in American musical theater that celebrate blackness in all of its forms.
When the announcement came down that the next NBC live musical event was to be The Wiz I got super excited and also very worried. On one hand, if they cast it correctly, it could be an incredible cultural event. On the other hand, if it flopped, it could be the death knell of live musical theater. The previous attempts by NBC to bring live theater to television had been fabulous at best (Audra McDonald, Laura Benanti) and catastrophic at worst (everything about Peter Pan: Live!). When the cast list came out I allowed myself to get more excited, and when I settled down last Thursday to watch the live broadcast I literally said out loud “Please don’t suck.”
The broadcast reconfirmed my assertion that The Wiz should not be performed by white people, despite the racist Tweets that came out complaining about the lack of a white version of the show (which there is…it’s called The Wizard of Oz). It’s not just a retelling of the L. Frank Baum story. It’s ultimately a celebration of and commentary on what it means to be black, in all its complications and triumphs. It is a reclaiming of tropes thought to be white and proving them to be universal, with a specific focus on black culture that in our current climate is at turns poignant and devastating. When the Scarecrow, knock-kneed and terrified, helplessly sang “You Can’t Win” surrounded by laughing crows, I thought of the various conversations I’ve had with friends of color who have expressed their frustrations at a legal system that seems to continually subjugate them and throw them aside. When the Tin Man (beautifully portrayed by R&B singer Ne-Yo, whom I completely forgot can actually sing his face off) sang “What Would I Do (If I Could Feel)” and the Cowardly Lion complained about needing therapy to figure out his issues in bravery, I considered it a much-needed commentary on the state of black masculinity. Here were two vulnerable, sweet men, showing all of their softer sides, who were complicated and needy and afraid and strong and wanting to be taken care of, and were also unapologetically black with the dance moves to match- they were doing the dab, hitting the quan, doing the nae nae, and all of that stuff. (When I Googled those terms, I have never felt more white in my life.)
I particularly loved the visit to the Emerald City, because it gave the cast a chance to finally reclaim voguing as an art form. You may know vogue from the earworm song by Madonna, but in actual fact it is a dance form that originated in Harlem, NY, by the black gay scene in the 70s and 80s. For more information about this dance, please watch the revolutionary documentary Paris is Burning, which documents the rise of gay “ball” culture in New York and the way gay men use dance and performance as a way to communicate frustration at their stagnant economic state. Voguing is a dance battle between gay “houses,” a cultural representation of rage and style, and getting to watch a bunch of beautifully dressed black men and women waack and death-drop was almost too much for me to take. “THIS IS SO IMPORTANT” I screamed to my girlfriend, over and over again, as she howled with laughter.
Speaking of queer narratives, the fact that Queen Latifah played the Wiz as a man made me extremely happy because it blurred all gender lines. Queering the narrative with black culture created even more of a conversation point about identity. When it was revealed that the Wiz was a woman, the Tin Man and Scarecrow balked. Dorothy turned to them and said, with just the right amount of feminist indignation, “And what’s wrong with being a woman?!” The importance of witnessing powerful black females who are complicated and messy is, to me, even more crucial than seeing the same with white women narratives. We see that all the time. We need more representation of all types of women. And when Uzo Aduba floated down on a golden cloud as Glinda the Good Witch, I felt chills roll down my spine at the sight. Here was a full figured, strong, gorgeous black woman positioned as the epitome of beauty and elegance and kindness. When is the last time you saw anything with that characterization of black womanhood? (Plus, fiber optic dress.)
Finally, when Dorothy (in a starmaking turn by Shanice Williams) gleefully summoned her friends to “Ease on Down the Road” in order to find what they need, I was reminded of articles detailing the easy way we as a culture completely forget about (or hypersexualize) young black girls. We tend to portray them as unstoppable machines or victims, so to have a young girl be vulnerable, sassy, angry, temperamental, joyful, autonomous, and grateful all at the same time on a national broadcast – and not be threatened by guns or drug use or anything else that we tend to place on young black girls in theatrical narratives – I felt a surge of emotion, thinking of all the young black girls in the United States who are bearing witness to unbearable persecution and horrific images of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Akiah Brown, and all other young people of color who have been senselessly gunned down, finally seeing a representation of their people that was not soaked in blood.
The Wiz: Live! could not have come at a better time for our nation, when so many young people desperately needed to see representation that was positive, joyful, and courageous. In these ways, The Wiz isn’t just an important musical. It’s an important political statement.