1970s Black Pride, Black Access in Hollywood, Commonwealth of Dominica, Diana Ross Home, Lena Horne, Michael Jackson, Nipsey Russell, Richard Pryor, Stephanie Mills' Home, Ted Ross, The Wiz, West Indians in New York City, Wizard of Oz
The other night, our family sat down to watch The Wiz.
I had never truly watched The Wiz. Now, before you get all indignant on me, I had a few good reasons. For starters, we did not own a television. I was still living in my native country of Dominica in the West Indies and by the time I arrived to the United States four years later, it was already out of theatres and off TV. Damn, I missed it! Moreover, by all accounts, we were a West Indian family who did not make a big deal about being Black in America. (That’s a different post for a different time.) Now, here I am in 2012, at the age of forty, giddy with delight, about seeing The Wiz for the first time.
I was already familiar with the powerhouse that is Stephanie Mills and her unbridled performance of “Home” in the broadway musical of the same name, but what I didn’t know was that, this version was an adaptation of The Wizard of Oz, a musical fantasy film produced in 1939. Both were inspired by L. Frank Baum’s children’s book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Rather than going into a retelling of the plot or story lines, I’d love to share some of what inspired me about The Wiz.
My first reaction, was simply, that this could not have been a remake. It was a major production! Replete with explosive choreography, musical talent, and top-shelf performers including Quincy Jones, Diana Ross, Nipsey Russell, Ted Ross, the fabulous Lena Horne, Michael Jackson, and Richard Pryor, The Wiz did not disappoint. I even had to give Diana Ross some credit for bringing her own verve and passion to her rendition of “Home”. Just when you thought her small frame of a body was going to blow over, she would dig deep and draw out what sounded like her own story. I’ve got to believe that playing Dorothy touched her on a very personal level. I’m sure there were critics, but for me, the show was supreme magic!”
Seeing The Wiz piqued my curiosity about the perceptions we have about access.
- Who has the power to grant access?
- Why do we ask for access?
Each and every time the main characters Dorothy, Tinman, Scarecrow, or Lion (aka Fleetwood Coupe de Ville) would try to catch a cab, the light atop the taxi would register an off-duty sign. Was that coincidence, or did this have a deeper meaning? I interpreted this symbolism as “Access Denied”. Rather than being able to enjoy the comfort or convenience of getting a ride, Dorothy and her crew had to “ease on down the road” by foot…again, but only after they turned those cabs into props, and climbed and danced all over them! It was as if Dorothy and her friends were saying, “We’ll make our own way, and create our own access”. Suddenly, the song “Ease On Down the Road” took on a much bigger meaning for me than Michael Jackson, who sang it. The silent protest in their actions definitely did not go unnoticed. It’s interesting that even now, in 2012, so many of us find ourselves having to create our own avenues for access and easing down our own roads.
The Wiz was also a cautionary tale about not assigning too much value into Wiz characters. The character of the Wiz, played by Richard Pryor, was no exception. Behind the seemingly indestructible mask, he was a lonely, fraudulent man with a broken spirit. He too, was hurt by life’s disappointments, and had his own personal limitations. This Wiz had no clue about getting Dorothy home, much less getting anyone else a heart, brain, or courage. In fact, he wasn’t even able to commit to which color it would be for too long; changing it from green to red, then finally to gold. Such tomfoolery!
The main characters in The Wiz shared insecurities about their own worth and abilities, but in their journey down the yellow brick road, they found a sense of community together. By all appearances, the Tinman needed some mechanical work, but what he expressed was the need for a heart, so he would have the capacity to love and feel. Scarecrow wanted a brain or intellect, but what he seemed to lack was confidence and the belief in the credibility of his own ideas. The Lion, of all people, needed courage. Just as in life, it is the seemingly stronger people who lack courage. Underneath what seems most impressive about them, physically or otherwise, lie real insecurities and hidden fears.
Dorothy just wanted to get back home. But where was home? When Dorothy sang of home, she referred to a “…a place where there’s love overflowing…a place where there’s love and affection”. Away from home, however, she learned of yet a different kind of love. She seemed to imply that “home” may insulate us from the real world, where love isn’t always unconditional or “overflowing”. Though she still yearned for home, she emphasized the importance of finding home within ourselves and not so much in the physical places that we call home.
During my adolescence, I reminisced about my childhood home in Dominica. While there, the wingspan of my grandmother’s arms would protect me (and my sister) from storms, real or imagined. It was her covering of love that would shield me from the colder realities of my new environment called New York City. Not having that in my new “home” made me feel displaced, insecure, and unsure. In this unknown city of bright lights, taxicabs, and shysters, I would search for my Wiz. Unknowingly, some of these so-called Wiz characters preyed on my naïveté. In my quest for belonging, they would do and say anything to make me feel “at home”, and I too, played a role in assigning them value that they neither earned nor deserved.
Much of my insecurity arose not from needing a Wiz, but from my own real fears about making the wrong choices, or taking the wrong path. It took some difficult experiences and broken relationships along the way for me to learn that Life was less about making the wrong choices, and more about owning the consequences of those choices. Releasing that fear of being wrong led me to that place called “home”, a metaphor for my happiness, which made searching for a Wiz absolutely irrelevant. Go figure!
-“Inner City Blues” (poem by Gil Scott Heron)
-“Home”, Stephanie Mills
-“Ease on Down the Road”, Michael Jackson