Updated: Nov 21, 2019
When you consider that art is often a commentary on reality, or as Brecht would argue, 'a hammer with which to shape it,' then a piece like William F. Brown's The Wiz is either a commentary within a commentary or one hammer concealed inside of another. In either case, it's a timely story in the strange summer days of 2019, one our most dystopian years and quite possibly the last season of this 200 year old series called America.
I was lucky enough to get to see Broadway At Music Circus production of The Wiz, directed by Glenn Casale with choreography by Gerry McIntyre and musical direction by Darryl Archibald in Sacramento. It was a lovely experience. The use of theatre in the round and the projected images of Kansas fields all around the audience were impressive and elegant. It gave the sense of a Norman Rockwell painting come to life. I also have to give extra points for the savvy theatre tech and modern references (anytime you can work Beyonce into something, an angel gets its wings).
As I looked around the theater, I became aware of the diversity of the crowd. I was seated behind a Black family excited to hear their favorite songs. There was an older white gentleman to my right who had never seen nor heard of the film and a young woman to my left in town from New York to support her boyfriend who was one of the dancers. It was quite a mix to say the least.
While I've always been a fan of the film and the soundtrack, I couldn't help but notice that the themes hit a little different now. A little deeper. As soon as the lights went down and the storm began, I realized why none of us know when things are going to be 'normal' again. We all relate to Dorothy, played by Adrianna Hicks. We're just trying to get through the storm. When Hicks belted out, "I wish I was home," the audience vibe was low key, "we all do, honey." It was a mood.
It reminded me that humans tend to seek joy in storytelling. When the outside world is harsh. We've done this since the stage was a cave wall and everyone huddled around a fire to keep the wolves away. Art can be commentary, it can be a hammer, but it can also be a respite. A safe harbor. And for a short time on a shelf in space lit with lights, we had that thing called joy.
I remembered what I always loved about the themes of Baum's original, The Wizard Of Oz, which are also present in The Wiz:
That there will always be evil, that it's ok to be brave and afraid at the same time, and that we're stronger together than we are alone.
The truth is that we all want what the wizard character wants; we all want power, prestige, and money. It looks great on Instagram. But, without joy, it's like Dorothy says, "A big empty room with no friends anywhere." And while we all want to hoard water and rule over minions like Evilline, played by Zonya Love, that's probably not going to get us back home.
As the cast took their final bows to a very well deserved standing ovation, I turned to look at the family behind me. The little boy was in his father's arms beaming with the shine we get as children when they see people who look like themselves being brilliant. That shine is why representation matters. The elderly gentleman to my right leaned in and said, "well now, that was quite a show." I couldn't agree more.