The Wiz, Whitewashed?


| 5/2/2008 2:54:02 PM


Tags: Arts, Musical Theater, Race,

There’s no place like home to discover news of the weird, so I shouldn’t have been surprised that the University of Minnesota staged The Wiz without what I thought was its sole requirement—an all-black cast. The school’s black student population was too small for that, Minnesota theater faculty told the alumni magazine Minnesota, so instead they cast a multicultural mix of students, reserving only the role of Dorothy for a black student.

I found the casting decision a bizarre alteration, especially after reading a panel discussion about race and theater in the April issue of American Theatre (article not available online). “Any love story or any story about people being people and doing ordinary things is somehow a white story,” says playwright and actor Zakiyyah Alexander. “If we see people of color represented in the culture, we’ve often shown their struggles with their environment, or their inner turmoil with their families and their troubled lives—how difficult it is to be us.”

The director of Minnesota’s Wiz takes the very moralizing approach toward being black that Alexander complains about. “I’m not going to beat people over the head with notions of identity,” Dominic Taylor told Minnesota. “Still, I want people to be aware of how young black kids think about their culture. In this production, home is the notion of keeping your culture with you.”

I can’t help thinking the university faculty were more preoccupied with putting on a play with enough name recognition to attract an audience than they were with anything philosophical. Such practical hedging calls into question university theater’s reputation for fearless innovation and racial inclusivity, which panel participant Daniel Banks, a director and choreographer, attributes to theater faculty “butt[ing] elbows with social scientists and critical thinkers.”

 

Warren B._3
7/10/2008 10:52:49 PM

[continuing from my previous cut-off comment:] Even _more_ to the point, _The Wiz_, at its core, is not a "black" show. I know, blasphemy. But I posit that, while I agree with Zakiyyah Alexander above that the African-American experience is easily the most visible example of a downtrodden people fighting to reclaim its cultural birthright (the Ashante empire, W.E.B. DuBois, etc.) while fighting the temptations that keep people in a viscious cycle (the hustler culture, gang life, welfare babies, "snitches rhymes with bitches cuz that's what they is", etc.), the same situation applies to the working poor across the racial and ethnic spectrum. And while Dominic Taylor could have chosen his words more delicately in his first sentence above, he _does_ eventually (albeit obtusely) hint at the other great theme of the show. The Scarecrow (who, interestingly, gets the most socially deep songs in the play _and_ movie versions) sings "Now that I know that I wasn't born yesterday, I can stand on my own; I'm fully grown." Being unaware of your greater cultural inheritance-- whether because of sub-standard schooling, peer pressure or willful ignorance-- makes it impossible to rise out of oppression, because you don't know that rising is possible, or where to rise to. Working with poor black kids in the projects who didn't know of any music (and I mean _any_) released before their birthday was upsetting; if Duke Ellington were part of your cultural inherentance, wouldn't you want to shout about it from the rooftops?


Warren B._2
7/10/2008 10:38:49 PM

I used the movie of _The Wiz_ as a teaching tool when I taught general music on the Red Hook housing projects in NYC two years ago; it was very effective both as a way to get predominantly black poverty-line students to become engaged in musical theater _and_ teach them lessons about self-esteem and fighting their worst stereotypes about themselves. (Thanks to idiots like Cam'ron and his extreme "stop snitching" nonsense, even the most dedicated poor parents face stiff competition in the battle over their own kids' ethical values.) "You Can't Win" (in the film only) in particular struck me as an amazing portrait of the self-genocidal temptations faced by kids in the projects, and that song is 30 years old! More to the point, I'm currently musical directing a high-school-age production of _The Wiz_ at a summer arts program on Long Island, and none of our cast members are of any sort of African descent, nor are they even near the poverty line (casts are chosen randomly from the program's student body, which is mostly Caucasian or Asian, and affluent). When the director chose the show, we discussed the fact that we'd likely be doing an all-Jew-WASP-and-Asian production of _The Wiz_, and I made it clear that in the interest of doing right by the show, I had to give a talk to the cast about the importance of the show as a vehicle for encouraging not just "black uplift" but uplift for the working poor in general. We've had to make some uncomfortable changes, of course-- the stereotypical African-American speech patterns (e.g. "she done set that house on Evvamene") have been subtly altered to avoid calling attention to 800-pound non-tradition casting gorilla on stage. Even _more_ to the point, _The Wiz_, at its core, is not a "black" show. I know, blasphemy. But I posit that, while I agree with Zakiyyah Alexander above that the African-American experience is easily the most visible ex


Warren B._1
7/10/2008 10:14:43 PM

I used the movie of _The Wiz_ as a teaching tool when I taught general music on the Red Hook housing projects in NYC two years ago; it was very effective both as a way to get predominantly black poverty-line students to become engaged in musical theater _and_ teach them lessons about self-esteem and fighting their worst stereotypes about themselves. (Thanks to idiots like Cam'ron and his extreme "stop snitching" nonsense, even the most dedicated poor parents face stiff competition in the battle over their own kids' ethical values.) "You Can't Win" (in the film only) in particular struck me as an amazing portrait of the self-genocidal temptations faced by kids in the projects, and that song is 30 years old! More to the point, I'm currently musical directing a high-school-age production of _The Wiz_ at a summer arts program on Long Island, and none of our cast members are of any sort of African descent, nor are they even near the poverty line (casts are chosen randomly from the program's student body, which is mostly Caucasian or Asian, and affluent). When the director chose the show, we discussed the fact that we'd likely be doing an all-Jew-WASP-and-Korean production of _The Wiz_, and I made it clear that in the interest of doing right by the show, I had to give a talk to the cast about the importance of the show as a vehicle for encouraging not just "black uplift" but uplift for the working poor in general. We've had to make some uncomfortable changes, of course-- the stereotypical African-American speech patterns (e.g. "she done set that house on Evvamene") have been subtly altered to avoid calling attention to 800-pound non-tradition casting gorilla on stage. Even _more_ to the point, _The Wiz_, at its core, is not a "black" show. I know, blasphemy. But I posit that, while I agree with Zakiyyah Alexander above that the African-American experience is easily the most visible e