The Wiz: Celebration or Throwback?

A few weeks ago, I attended a production of The Wiz at New York City Center--, a ‘black rewrite’ of The Wizard of Oz. Originally on Broadway in 1975, the musical has won numerous Tony awards, has been adapted into a movie, and has recently been revived in a production featuring Ashanti and Orlando Jones.

Throughout the show, I couldn’t help wondering what exactly made this musical a black rewrite. Was it the soulful music? Or the names like Addaperle and Evillene? Or was it that the dancing infused contemporary technique with hip-hop moves?

And then all of this pondering led me to another question: Is this so-called black musical a celebration of contemporary urban black culture, as it was thought to be in the 1970’s, or just a throwback to old black stereotypes?

Some of the jokes felt a bit awkward in the modern production. Charles Isherwood wrote in The New York Times:

The book, by William F. Brown, features jokes that presumably went down a little more smoothly in the pre-politically-correct 1970s. Now it seems a (sic) uncomfortable to chortle as the Good Witch of the North, Addaperle (a feisty, fun Dawnn Lewis), tries to guess at Dorothy’s name, coming up with possibilities like Chantiqua and Latifa and Starletta.

Another joke about “transporting a minor across state lines” also seemed to fall flat to the modern audience. The tacky and clumsy Addaperle generally seemed to expect more laughs than her character received. There was something distinctly outdated about much of the dialogue.

New York Times columnist Frank Rich had a harsher take on the show. He felt that the revival version failed to live up to the 1970’s original show:

The Wiz was hardly a great musical in 1975, but it had something to say, and it said it with verve and integrity. It's depressing to watch a once-fervent expression of black self-respect and talent be spilled on the stage as if it were a truckload of marked-down, damaged goods.

Despite many theatergoers’ love for catchy tunes like, “Ease on Down the Road” and “Brand New Day,” critics seem to agree that this production fell flat overall. I have to admit, the acting was pretty bad (although the book didn’t really lend itself to brilliant performances) and much of the musical simply felt corny.

But in spite of these negative reviews, I found something striking about the show. Yes, the singing was magnificent, and the dancing was a style not normally seen in Broadway shows. It did mix traditional technique with jerky hip-hop movements. But besides that, the cast was all black. In a theater world with so many roles written specifically for white actors, it can’t be easy to make it in the biz as a racial minority. Theatre, like pretty much everything else, is mostly controlled by white men. Of the 40 actors nominated for Tony awards, only 3 were not white, and only one was black. Less than 20% of plays are written by women, and likely even fewer are written by minorities. Seeing an all-black cast made me realize just how many all-white casts are typically seen on Broadway.

Is there still a need for minority theater in our so-called “post-racial” society? If theater is a reflection of society, it should include all of our diverse cultures. Should it be careful to avoid stereotypical jokes and characters that may make audiences uneasy, or are these important reflections of culture as well? Do jokes about names like Chantiqua and Starletta hinder racial progress or just make us laugh without influencing our perceptions of other cultures?

I don’t really have an answer. I want to see all people represented on stage, but I also don’t want those representations to further essentialize racial groups. If the only representation of black people in theater is a store clerk with a bad attitude, that doesn’t do society justice. But if that character shares a stage with other, less-stereotypical portrayals, maybe theater can expand to include all groups. Or maybe we’re all worrying too much about being politically correct. Maybe we should stop considering works of art about black people as black theatre, and instead view them simply as theatre.

Obviously, this issue will not be resolved anytime soon. While I was also disappointed with some of the performances in The Wiz, I liked that it rekindled all of these questions, especially in light of current discussions around race regarding Sotomayor and Obama. And besides, I liked that I was humming the songs for the following week.

In lieu of having no answer to any of these questions, I leave you with some humorous commentary from the famed musical Avenue Q, which talks about race explicitly and tries to show the shed humor on racial debates through its song “Everyone’s a little bit Racist.” The puppets sing:

Ethnic jokes might be uncouth
But you laugh because they’re based on truth
Don’t take them as personal attacks
Everyone enjoys them….so relax!