Anyone between the ages of 3 and 103 knows the classic story of Dorothy Gale and The Wizard Of Oz, first made famous in the 1939 classic Hollywood motion picture starring the late Judy Garland in the lead role. The original story was centered around the young, displaced-by-a-tornado Dorothy and her three newfound friends (the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion) in the land of Oz and their quest to Emerald City to see the powerful Wizard about gifting them a brain, a heart and some courage (for the three friends, respectively) and a trip back to Kansas for homesick Dorothy.
Fast-forward to the mid-1970s when then-future R&B star Stephanie Mills (who played Auntie Em in the current version) reprised the role of Dorothy in the Broadway musical adaptation known as “The Wiz,” which featured an all-black cast and became a critical success and Tony Award-winner (for “Best Musical”). A few years later in 1978, legendary pop and soul superstar Diana Ross, then an age-inappropriate 34-year-old, played a teenage Dorothy in the motion picture also starring a 20-year-old Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow. (I guess Diana felt that if a 28-yr-old Olivia Newton-John could pull off a teenage high-schooler Sandy earlier that year, then Ross could certainly pull this off.) Despite the presence of those two icons (ok, maybe Michael wasn’t an icon quite yet), that film turned out to be a flop, with the movie grossing less in the box office ($21M) than it actually cost to make it ($24M), although it has since become somewhat of a cult classic, particularly in the black community.
So now move the calendar forward 37 years to today and NBC’s very bold and courageous (if not risky) decision to air a live version of the theater production of the all-black musical, this edition starring an unknown aspiring actress (the actually 19-year-old Shanice Williams) as Dorothy, alongside a host of professional musicians and actors not all known for doing live theater (except maybe Queen Latifah), and you set the stage for a potential TV disaster in the making, right?
Thursday night’s production of “The Wiz Live!” couldn’t have gone much better. Sure there were some minor hiccups, like the rapper Common’s somewhat stiff performance as the Emerald City gatekeeper (folks, he was stiffer than Ne-yo as the Tin Man without the oil — and Ne-yo was trying to be stiff!). There was also that one slightly sour musical note hit by Glinda the Good Witch of the South (played by “Orange is the New Black” actress Uzo Aduba) in the next to last performance before the grand finale. Other than those few-and-far-between bad moments, “The Wiz Live!” was a musical extravaganza about as good as live TV musicals can be, with the actors – many of them more known for their singing or rapping careers than their acting ones – all doing very commendable jobs entertaining us (or at least me and some of the folks’ whose comments I’ve seen in social media).
Some of the best performances were by veteran singers like Mary J. Blige (Evilene, the cantankerous Wicked Witch of the West) and Ne-yo, particularly when his Tin Man cut the rug with some contemporary dance moves after Dorothy sufficiently lubricated him with oil during their first encounter. Even the gayish vogueing dance scene in Emerald City was impressive, if not itself an outdated relic more befitting of a 1990s Throwback Thursday moment. And the flying monkeys were much more impressive to me when considering the limitations and confinement offered by a theater stage.
Any time a live theater production like this is being immortalized in prime time on a major TV network, especially in this era of YouTube and social media where bad mistakes can be tweeted and retweeted with the mere touch of a finger, the performances almost had to be picture perfect. I’d say, this colorful, energetic performance by this set of actors was about as close to perfect as one could be given the amount of pressure and the odds against.
Yet, despite the feel-good nature of the story and the spirit of the current holiday season that prompted its airing, there were still many haters in Twitter land questioning NBC’s decision and the so-called reverse “racist” production that featured this all-black cast. Unfortunate comments like “The Wiz on NBC is a PC disaster. An all-black Wizard of Oz? Give me a freaking break? I could say that’s racist but…” Or this one: “I just learned there is a black version of “The Wizard of Oz” called “The Wiz” – how is this not racist?” Or “This is how I feel. Remaking something with an all-black cast seems…a tiny bit racist.”
I read these and other comments with amusement as I questioned, no…I judged the lack of wisdom attached to them. For instance, that someone is “just learning” that there was a black adaptation of this story suggests a lack of social awareness and even a hint of cultural indifference by the author of that comment. Now, I’ll grant that the comment was tweeted, so I could allow the benefit of doubt and chalk up that ignorance to the author’s possible youth. (I’m assuming the writer was born after, say, 2000.) But the same energy it took to tweet that comment could’ve been used to research “The Wiz” and learn that it’s a show that’s actually been around for 40-plus years and is historically all-black.
Even funnier was the notion that an all-black cast of characters was a racist move – again, ignoring the show’s 40-year history, but also dismissing the fact that the original “Wizard of Oz” featured…get this…an all-white cast.
Now I get that one might consider comparing 1930s’ Hollywood to post-Civil Rights, post-Affirmative Action, post-Obama 2015 America to be like comparing apples and oranges. But calling an all-black musical racist because it features an all-black cast is just plain stupid when you really think about it.
Take the 1970s’ CBS TV sitcom “Good Times” or even Bill Cosby’s ’80s ratings juggernaut “The Cosby Show.” When those shows aired back in their day, I don’t recall them being criticized as “racist” for the mere fact they featured all black actors (although they each endured criticisms for other reasons). They were simply seen as shows about black families that naturally cast black actors to portray them. Yet, because this particular production of “The Wiz” is an adaptation of a story that was originally cast with all white actors in 1939, it is criticized as being racist when it flips the script.
Oh, the irony!
The year of the original “Wizard,” 1939, also happened to be the year in which actress Hattie McDaniel became the first black to win an Academy Award for her role as “Mammy” in “Gone With The Wind” (awarded in 1940). “Gone” also beat out “The Wizard” for best picture that year, although “Wizard” did take home two music/score-related awards.
But I digress. “Mammy” the maid was about as good as it got for black actors back then, and it was certainly one that McDaniel was typecast in many times…too many to mention. Today, we get to watch new (and some not-so-new) black performers dress up and pretend to be the beloved Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion (not to mention The Wizard, for whom the producers even took a bold step further and cast a woman, Queen Latifah, in the role).
So, 75 years after both Dorothy and Mammy, when NBC decides to celebrate “The Wiz” (once, I might add), and while we’re still enduring (okay, maybe enjoying) annual holiday airings of the all-white “Wizard of Oz,” NBC is met with racist tweets by people whose ignorance couldn’t be more apparent.
It’s too bad that the above and the overall stellar performance by newcomer Shanice Williams (who is so new that a Wikipedia entry had not yet even been made for her as of this typing), had to be met with the almost expected racially based negative reactions by some folks. I’d be surprised if even Stephanie Mills’ introductory turn in 1975 was met with so much resistance and hateration (as M. J. Blige might put it).
But then, that was the 1970s, and this is the 2010s.
Oh, the irony!