So I finally set some time aside to see NBC’s The Wiz – Live. It was fabulous too! But I must admit, it wasn’t just the show itself; although I think they did a respectable enough job with the production. A big part of it was the quality and timelessness of The Wiz itself. The nostalgia that brings back memories of times where Black Americans had moved beyond making strides towards equality…they were beginning to build and regain their communal, cultural pride.
Black Americans have always had their own circle of popular entertainment. Many things begin deep within the circle, hidden from the larger American population; and then they go mainstream. Tyler Perry is a good example of this, who produced live plays featuring his Madea character, who was widely known in the Black community, a good 5-10 years before he made his first feature film in 2005. Now just because you are a Black entertainer, doesn’t mean that your road to success must follow this formula (real life is not that simplistic). However it is a very natural, organic process. You excel at what you know…what you love…by being who you are. You gain popularity and a following within your own community first. Then, you venture out into the ‘mainstream’.
Now, let’s go back to 1960s/1970s America. You had a generation that had grown up with several decades of “pop culture” behind them. When I say “pop culture” I mean wildly popular media such as movies, music and literature. You had songs and films that became an ingrained part of American culture. In terms of film, most certainly movies like Gone With The Wind, Casablanca, Citizen Kane, and of course The Wizard of Oz where just movies that were so familiar to that generation of Americans. And this included Black Americans as well.
The Wiz, like Jesus Christ Superstar, benefited from the fact that mostly everyone knew the background story already. So a lot of creativity could be put into the interpretation. Being a musical, The Wiz offered a ton of opportunity to be re-invented so to speak. While the original book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum and the 1939 film starring Judy Garland both showcased the fantasy of the story, The Wiz hones in more on the story itself…conveyed via music.
Unlike many earlier all-Black Broadway productions (i.e. Porgy & Bess) The Wiz didn’t look to African-American folk music such as spirituals for inspiration. It drew upon more contemporary styles. Amazingly, even after 40 years, the music still defies sounding dated. Most of the numbers have a strong soul, gospel and even funk feel to them. The music isn’t ‘influenced by’ or ‘reminiscent’ of African-American pop music; it is African-American pop music.
And even though The Wiz may have been a type of ‘for us, by us’ type of production back in 1975, things are a bit different today. Back in 1975, White America/Americans appreciated The Wiz for its approximation; as an excellent ‘Black version’ of the classic. Today The Wiz shines not for just its approximation and imitation, but as a demonstration of our willingness to embrace our unique culture; and to be unapologetic about it. Just like White America has taken elements from Black culture, and re-spun it around to make it their own…we can absolutely do the same thing.
So when I heard about all of the racist, disparaging remarks about The Wiz on social media, I was pretty befuddled. Surely these people realized that The Wiz was not about exclusion, but about the celebration of the unique Black American culture that persists until this day.
Now don’t get it twisted. I will be the first person to say that Black American culture is not homogeneous. Regardless of this, to see representation of your people, adapting a well-known American tale to put their own unique spin on it…that is special. And we (Black Americans) should be able to do this without being made to feel like we are being racist for doing so.
‘Black’ entertainment is a very important part of American popular culture. It acknowledges the unique contributions that African-Americans have made in the entertainment world. This is not exclusionary…but respectful. It recognizes Black America for what we are and in which ways we are special.