The Wiz, Whitewashed?

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.”

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