By: Amaya Allen and Hassatou Diallo
The Black Magic of The Wiz! Live by Amaya Allen and Hassatou Diallo
The Wiz is considered to be a prized possession within the African American community as this is one of the first musicals to contain an all Black cast, African American linguistics, and musical elements. This production is about how Dorothy, a young shy school teacher from bustling Harlem, who finds herself lost in the Land of Oz. The audience follows Dorothy on the many adventures she experiences while trying to reach the Wiz so that she can be sent back home to NY. The show was incredibly successful from the amazing music to the heartfelt lyrics and everything in between that served as a reminder to African Americans that their culture is in fact beautiful and carries with it meanings that show the resilience and love that is apparent in the community.
Amaya and Hassatou are currently in a small living room in EBI answering questions about The Wiz! Live after watching it together.
Amaya Allen is a senior (yay!) from New York City majoring in Law, History and Society and minoring in Theatre. She speaks an impressive amount of Mandarin and a little Italian. After graduating from Vanderbilt in May, she will be moving to London, England.
Hassatou Diallo is a junior majoring in Medicine, Health and Society with a minor in Anthropology. She is currently studying Spanish and French to prepare for when the international borders are open.
Amaya: Before we start discussing the performance, I think it is really important to talk about our backgrounds a little bit, since the show talks about race and identity.
Amaya: So we have a lot in common! We are both Black women, and I believe we are both first-generation Americans as well. We are also both New Yorkers who live in majority Black parts of town. My parents are from the Caribbean, but my mother spent a lot of her childhood in the United States. I think that is important because there are some cultural differences between the Black American culture and Black Caribbean culture that she (and later I) were exposed to, but we both grew up pretty Americanized, so I think it is safe to say that our viewpoints on some things are different than the typical American one. What about you Hassatou, do you agree with this?
Hassatou: I 100% agree! We do have a lot in common from us both being Black to being first generation Americans but I think the main difference would have to be that I grew up in an African household. For me, the only time I was exposed to American culture was at school or when I watched Disney (YUP, I was a Disney kid growing up). I wasn’t really exposed to African American culture until I was in high school since all of my peers were either Caribbean, Asian American or Hispanic. But when I got the chance to watch the WIZ in high school, I fell in love! It was beautiful to see a Black woman as the main character going through struggles that society typically associated with white women. Being Black is an already broad topic being a Black woman in America, nonetheless, is rather complex especially in regards to the intersectionality that is apparent.
Question: The first song that I really think we should discuss is Ease on Down the Road. What about the song caught your attention? Especially in regards to the relationship between race, the lyrics of the song and the overall meaning of the song.
Amaya: So Ease on Down the Road is one of those songs that I just listened to growing up. My mother loved the movie version of The Wiz (she is a huge Michael Jackson fan) and I always thought that this song was THEE song to know from the movie. In this production, the song is updated from a very funky song with a horn and drum centric instrumentation for the hip hop generation. The Wiz! Live’s “Ease on Down the Road ” keeps its signature horns but adds a drum kit instead of a traditional drum, making the song sound more new age. In terms of lyrics, this song was the theme of the movie for a reason! It is catchy and has a message that resonates with a lot of Black people. I mean, “ease on down the road// don’t you carry nothing that might be a load”? The song is literally begging Black people to keep going towards the path TO FREEDOM and leave all of their worries in the past. There are no verses in the song, but the song does allude to the fact that being Black in America is enough to drive everyone crazy, saying “ Cause there may be times//When you think you lost your mind//And each step you’re takin’// Leave you three, four steps behind.” I think these lines are especially important because following that with “we need to keep on keepin’ on” is still super relevant despite this production being 5 years ago and the original production being 45 years old. It’s just such an iconic tune, we stan.
Hassatou: I really enjoyed this song because of everything that Amaya just said! Whenever I hear this song, I feel a sense of happiness consume me because of the connotation that the song provokes. The song just reminds me that there will always be someone on the guidelines rooting for me and who will be able to pick me up. In my opinion, the scarecrow serves as an analogy of the fear that African Americans face in this country. I know that this may seem like a stretch but I only came up with this conclusion after seeing the scarecrow continue to cower with fear in his eyes, how he can’t stand with confidence and overall this terror consuming him. The scarecrow, like many African Americans, has to deal with uncertainty and fear in their daily lives. This analogy between the scarecrow and African Americans brought back memories of the my community mourning the loss of Trayvon Martin, and George Floyd due to police brutality, of my community facing discrimination in the work force, school settings and honestly, every day of our lives. However, even when these terrible things were plaguing my community, we stood with each other, and we held each other tightly while whispering motivational words to each other. We knew that we were stronger together than being by ourselves, and this is executed beautifully in this song. For instance, it seems that the scarecrow finally gains courage when Dorothy grabs his hand prompting him to exclaim: Ease on Down! Come on Dorothy, don’t carry nothing that might be a load.” I doubt the scarecrow would have been able to have the endurance if it wasn’t for Dorothy reminding him that he was not alone and that she would be there to help him “carry the load” that consumed him.
Question: Not only does the song do an excellent job of creating such a motivational theme, the choreography helps further this theme. Can it be argued that by the choreography not being restrictive, it further helps perpetuate the idea of being optimistic during fallen times? If you did not notice this about the choreography, is there something that you noticed that should be discussed?
Amaya: So the choreography is clearly influenced by b-boy culture. Like, there are no ifs, ands, or buts about it, and I think that is why this version of the show just works. Dorothy and Scarecrow are on stage hitting the Lil’ Uzi dance for gosh sake! In my opinion, the choreography was definitely intentionally set in this era as opposed to a more “traditional” musical theatre style for two reasons. Firstly, they wanted to root the choreography (and the show itself on a grand scale) in Blackness. Although Broadway has a tendency to appropriate some forms of Black culture, many Black people don’t view traditional Broadway style dancing as something that is ours, because the industry shut out Black people from either performing or having access to musical theatre (particularly Broadway) for so long. I mean, theatre became a thing in like, 1750, but Black people weren’t even allowed to see a Broadway show until 1921’s Shuffle Along). So for Black people who didn’t have the privilege of being exposed to Broadway for whatever valid reason they had, they weren’t alienated when watching this production. Black viewers could look up and see the same dances that they have seen their favorite artists do hundreds of times. On that note, the second reason is because showrunners wanted the message to stick. As a Black person in America, a lot of mainstream media likes to talk about the civil rights era and how progressive it was. To oversimplify the situation (by a lot) we have made progress, but we haven’t even scratched the surface when it comes to race relations in this country (or granting Black people basic rights). The show is essentially a love story to America. Dorothy is thrown into this whimsical world with great characters and is able to defeat the bad gal easily, so from a surface level she is better off in Oz than she is in America. Despite that, ever since she puts on those silver shoes, all she can think about is going home where her roots are, where she belongs. And of course, the music and cast members help that message come through, but basing the choreography in something that is so intrinsically Black and American, as opposed to them doing heavily African influenced dances (or anywhere else really), really shows non-Black people the influence what Black people have created in the United States, and reaffirms Black people that they are American.
Hassatou: YES Amaya! I did also notice that the choreography for this particular song did contain Black dances that I grew up around and was familiar with. It was great to see that the choreography was not intense or complex but rather simple one-two steps that were easy to catch on. I am honestly one of the worst dancers EVER (hahah) but when I was watching I got up and started dancing in my room. The exuberant energy that is displayed in the lyrics is paralleled in the choreography, in my opinion, by the fast paced moves that Dorothy and the Scarecrow do. They never seem to miss a beat, they are always in sync, consistently hold hands and make eye contact even as they spin around the road. I didnt even think about the idea that this song could be a love letter to America from the Black perspective. Honestly, I can see that from the upbeat choreography that combines both Black and American routines to show America that they can be both Black and american without alienating the other. Honestly, I resonated with this song because of the overall optimistic tone that is perpetuated throughout the song, there is never a moment where Dorothy or Scarecrow leave each other behind from making sure that they stand next to each other, that they are dancing to the same beat and giving each other smiles throughout the performance. They represent a pure friendship that is only focused on lifting each other up.
Question: Ease on down is a great musical number that shows how impactful an optimistic outlook has on overcoming hardships but is this also applicable to the song Be a Lion? I loved watching the performance of Be a Lion and was wondering if there are any similarities or major differences that you noticed between the two performances?
Hassatou: I am so glad that we are analyzing these two performances! I would first like to begin with the differences as that is what I noticed first when watching the production. I think the main difference that was blatant was that in Ease on Down there was no shift in tone or mood. The mood and tone, when Dorothy and the Scarecrow were singing, was consistently jovial and upbeat. You could hear the loud bass, blues music, and the trumpets blaring loudly (hahah) as they sang “Ease on down, come on down, don’t carry nothing that might me a load.” However, when you watch Be a Lion, you can see the motivation and encouragement that Dorothy gives him when she sings “But not even lightning; Will be frightening, my lion”. She reminds him that there is nothing he should be afraid of in this world because he is a powerful lion that deserves to be respected and feared by others. The constant in these two performances is that Dorothy is always there providing emotional support to the characters. I kind of wonder if this is due to her being a woman or being a black woman at that. She was empathic and caring to both the lion and scarecrow even when she had to put her emotions and thoughts aside. Honestly, when I think of a black woman, I think of Dorothy not what society stereotypes us as but instead as people who feel things, who help others grow and who make sure that comfort is a reality for everyone so that no one is ever excluded.
Amaya: Well firstly, I think that “Be A Lion” is a church song. Period. It is so clearly rooted in the African American church tradition that anyone who has stepped inside of a African American church would know exactly what I’m talking about. The instruments are the church’s usual piano and drum (specifically the drum kit’s cymbals) and the focus is really on the vocals. It’s giving Martin Sapp, heavy. And I think that is beautiful. In the show, Dorothy is this breath of fresh air for the other characters and is validating their emotions and fears to an audience consisting of Black men who do not have the chance to express their emotions and have them be validated by society. Dorothy is consistently uplifting the Lion with lyrics such as “You’re standing so tall//you’re the greatest of them all” in what is essentially a ballad to him. On the other hand, “Ease on Down” sends a more general message to keep going, rather than taking the time to explicitly uplift. Once again, both are positive, please don’t misunderstand me, but “Be A Lion” is a ballad, so the way it will communicate love and pride will be different than a song that is meant to serve as a catchy theme song.
Question: What is the significance of the song shifting from a melancholy tone to a courageous tone? Why is it important to note that when the mood was rather sorrowful, Dorothy was singing by herself but when the Lion gained confidence in himself, he and Dorothy harmonized together? What does this juxtaposition show about the overall theme in the production?
Amaya: I wouldn’t say that the mood was melancholy, it was just slow because it was a ballad. However, I do think that the harmonizing at the end was beautiful. Dorothy sees something in the Lion that he does not see in himself. So the shift was really the Lion believing in himself and loving himself as much as the people around him, which, again, is beautiful and falls in line with the overall message of the show.
Hassatou: That is such a great question! Honestly, I think the significance of the shift shows the impact that people can have on another person’s mood. Dorothy is soooo powerful she is able to help the Lion believe in himself and see the potential that he has to become a commanding lion. The lion was only able to finally see that he could be a powerful force when Dorothy reminded him that when he feels scared or nervous he should remember to “stand strong and tall; [and be] the bravest of them all”.
Question: Speaking of lions, we should talk about the Lion’s character arc and his song “Mean Ole Lion”. How did you think his character and this song addressed stereotypes about Black people? Do you agree with how his character was handled?
Hassatou: I think that this song definitely perpetuates the stereotype of Black people being violent. When I listened to this song, I felt very uncomfortable because it showed me how other people see Black people through a negative lens. The lyrics that caught my eye were “For I just might knock you down; You know I’m ready to fight; All you strangers better beware,” because I wondered why the producers would keep those lyrics since the connotation contradicts the overall message of the musical being about uplifting Black people. Like how they changed every character to be Black, the music to be more inclusive of Black culture, why could they not change the lyrics to be more positive? Since this version of the WIZ is connected to the identity of African Americans, I do think that this particular song should have been revised. They could have used words like: I am strong, I am brave, For I just might knock you down, when you try to scare me”. Those don’t have to be the exact lyrics but something along those lines would be better. (Sorry I am not really musically talented Haha but those lyrics would sound great with the beat of the song!)
Amaya: In my opinion, the Lion has the most interesting character arc. He is introduced as this “Mean Ole Lion” (pun intended) who sings that he wants to be left alone. In the instrumental of the song, the Lion is snarling, he is snarling and growling, and his choreography is slow and calculating. He definitely looks like a predator, and the other three members of the core four are his prey. This is definitely a nod to the way Black people (specifically Black men) are perceived in society. They are seen as dangerous predators, especially in the media. But the Lion is, in layman’s terms, a wimp. He wants courage and he has a lot of fears. Although I don’t think Black men are wimps by any means, the juxtaposition between being a softie with a “hard” exterior exists in the Black community a lot. I think that the song was meant to distance listeners, because that is what the Lion wanted to do. And it makes sense, because distancing yourself is a trauma response… Anyways, I digress. I disagree on the point that the song could have been taken out, although I do acknowledge your perspective. To me, the Lion was very thought out and had this song and plot line for a reason (it is actually kind of scary how much depth this character has when put in the Black context considering that he is not an original character).
Question: Another notable part of the Lion’s character is his age. He is noticeably a lot older than the other characters in the core 4, particularly Dorothy and the Scarecrow. What do you think that making the Lion older has to say about the generational differences amongst Black Americans? Feel free to talk about your favorite Lion moments.
Hassatou: I did notice that the Cowardly Lion was somewhat older than the rest of the characters. In my opinion I thought that the Cowardly Lion served as an analogy for the African Americans who grew up in times of deep oppression like slavery, or during the Jim Crow era. This was only because he was more cautious, fearful and worrisome than Dorothy and the scarecrow were. Older African Americans, in my experience, tend to be more cautious than my peers because they lived in a time where they faced overt racism and exclusion in any way shape and form. For them survival meant being timid, speaking when spoken to, and making sure that they did not take up space. Doesn’t this sound familiar? Don’t these characteristics remind you of the Lion? However, while the Lion may have grown up in an era where submission equals survival, Dorothy and the Scarecrow grew up in a time where your true self, regardless of being Black, was applauded and celebrated. This may explain why Dorothy tends to be more outspoken, and somewhat rebellious compared to the Lion, who shies away from conflicts that arise. I think that it was a great idea to make the Lion older than the rest of the main cast because they do an incredible job of highlighting the differences between the older African Americans and younger African Americans. Afterall, even if they are all Black, their experiences are very different depending on the era they grew up in.
Amaya: Yeah, when watching the movie version of The Wiz as a child, I never noticed the age difference between the Lion and the other characters but it was really apparent in this production. The Lion keeps up well with the rest of the cast, but he moves differently, as if he has been weathered from all of the years he has been in the world and lacks the optimism that the Scarecrow, Tinman and Dorothy have. It showed a lot in the way he moved specifically. I agree with you when you say it reminds you of the attitude of older generations. It is hard as hell being Black. Like, hard as hell, especially in America! Older generations have watched leaders get shot, broken promises thrown on them, and more. They have seen the worst of this country, and although younger generations have seen it too. They haven’t experienced for as many years and have not seen the inhumane treatment of Black people evolve yet stay in the exact same place. It’s incredibly sad but it’s super true at the same time. I think that my favorite Lion moment was when he was at Oz and they realized that the wizard can’t do anything for them, and that they’ve had what they wanted all along. The reason I like it is because older generations can see that and they can feel validated that the courage that they’ve had all these years have not been in vain nor have they been ignored, even if they couldn’t see it themselves.
Question: The Tin man’s song “What Would I Do If I Could Feel” is also super interesting. What do you think the song and presentation of it say about Black vulnerability?
Hassatou: I believe that this song does an incredible job of highlighting the juxtaposition of being Black and vulnerable as it pushes the false narrative that African Americans are supposed to be strong and capable which causes their experiences to be constantly pushed aside or questioned. In other terms, African-Americans were constantly perceived as second class citizens. For instance, the Tin Man serves as an analogy for the hard shell that African Americans are forced to have so that they can survive as they do not have the same liberties as their white counterparts do. I mean if you think of the lyrics “ what would I do; if I could suddenly feel; and know once again; that what I feel is real”. These lyrics are questions that African Americans think about everyday like “is it okay that I am feeling this way, will my emotions be validated or will they be seen as inappropriate or useless”. Like the Tin Man, the black community is not given the same opportunities like everyone else but we crave to have our feelings be validated, to be heard and to be given the chance to cry without being stereotyped as victims or angry. Like the Tin Man, black people just want to be given the space to feel.
Amaya: So firstly I just have to say I love Ne-Yo. He’s one of my favorite bald headed Black men. I think the Tin man’s song was really interesting just because he wants a heart. Like the Lion, he also has a hard exterior and he wants to push people away, but in the Tin man’s case it’s because he’s scared of disappointing people because he thinks that he can’t feel. So when he is in front of the wizard singing this song he’s being super super vulnerable, he’s pouring his heart out, begging the Wiz to allow him to feel something so that he can feel better about himself. And I think a lot of Black people particularly Black women have been forced not to feel a lot of things. We are commonly labeled as angry or aggressive for having emotions so in order to survive a lot of us happen to just bottle it up and I think it’s really poetic that the tin man could feel the whole time and just had to allow himself to feel and allow himself to be vulnerable and you see that in this moment. The song starts off with the Tin man saying he “could cry, he could smile” and “he would be more than glad to share all that he has inside” of him and I think that’s really the message that was meant to take away from this. It’s not just about being able to feel, it’s about being able to openly express how you feel.
Question: Now let’s talk about the Scarecrow. Elijah Kelley had HUGE shoes to fill playing the role Michael Jackson originated, but he did it really well. In his song “You Can’t Win” Scarecrow and the Crows sing together about being stuck in a game that they just can’t get out of or win. How do the lyrics and choreography of this interpretation of the song make a statement about race?
Amaya: Firstly, rest in peace Michael Jackson, you would’ve loved this staging. This song is about being trapped in a system that is not meant for you, and I think that something that every Black person, no matter what class or ethnic background you come from, can relate to in this country. It was super interesting that both the crows and the scarecrow were singing the same thing because they are technically supposed to be enemies. However, they’re simply just playing their part because there’s not much else that they can do. Both sides sing “You can’t win//you can’t break even//And you can’t get out of the game//People keep saying’ things are gonna change//But they look just like, they’re staying’ the same.” The Scarecrow thinks that he is trapped in his system and thinks that having a brain will fix it. That’s something that was told to Black people all the time. Black people are constantly thouhgt of as dumb and in institutions like Vanderbilt you have a select crop of Negroes who get this degree and then are shown off everywhere to show that if they can do it anyone who looks like them can. However, that’s that’s not the case for everyone. That’s not the case for a lot of people who live in New York City, which is supposed to be a liberal paradise. During the performance the crows never leave the stage. They can fly but they can’t leave and that is so important to note because it symbolizes the fact that they are literally trapped where they are.
Hassatou: I really resonated with this song because of the symbolism that is created when the Scarecrow was stuck on that pole throughout the whole performance and even when he made it off the pole, he was bright right back to it. This song symbolizes the struggles that African Americans go through as they are reminded constantly that they “can’t win, [and] can’t break even [regardless of] people keep saying, things are gonna change”. In other words, like how the Tin Man was given false hope that he would be freed from the pole, African Americnas are also given this false hope throughout their lives. They are told that if they go to schools like Vanderbilt, like Amaya was explaining before, they will be seen as one of the few people that made it out of the “hood” but it is a disillusionment. Even when they arrive in these spaces, nothing really changes, they still “can’t win”, they are continuously judged, and made to feel like imposters. I mean it is kind of ironic isn’t it? Like how a crow helped the Scarecrow but then he put the Scarecrow back on the pool? That is what it is like to be black in America- thinking change will happen but it’s only for a split second then the horrific realities appear reminding you of your place.
Question: Now we can’t wrap up without talking about “Everybody Rejoice (Brand New Day) or “Home”. They are both iconic moments from the show for very different reasons. Even though they are both very happy songs, they express that happiness differently. How would you compare the joy in the two songs. Which song was more powerful to you? Why?
Amaya: I love “Everybody Rejoice”! It is one of those songs that just sticks with you and it’s excellent. Period. However I thought it was ironic that the two songs were so close to each other. “Everybody Rejoice” Is about change, it’s about something new coming and is a very happy go lucky song. The change that everyone in Oz was looking for finally happened. They overcame. Everything is good! The Wicked Witch is dead. Their elation is shown in the choreography. The core four stand on a platform as heroes while the ensemble around them sings as a choir about how happy they are. The colors are bright, a sharp contrast to how the set was when the Wicked Witch was there, and it’s a song that draws the crowd in and asks them to celebrate with them (which I definitely did).Yet, Dorothy decides to go home. Not only does she decide to go home, she makes her decision by singing a ballad to the United States specifically. The weight of this decision makes “Home” a little bit more powerful to me than “Everybody Rejoice”. The reason I say that is because, and I wrote about this in my discussion post, Dorothy has something to lose by going home. Everything in Oz is fixed. If she stays in eyes she will have no worries. Despite that, she decides that she wants to be in America because America is her home, and that is a really really powerful message to sum up what the Wiz is saying The show takes all of these different aspects of being Black in America: coming from the older generation with the Lion, to being able to express your feelings with the Tin man to being perceived as dumb and not having a brain with Scarecrow, and they add Dorothy to it to say despite the negative perception people may have of you, a.) you have everything you need right inside of you and b.) you are just as American as any other person.
Hassatou: I think this is such a good question to ask to wrap up because of the meaning that these two songs have in common. Both songs succeed in highlighting the importance of going back home, being in an environment where they feel comfortable and feel wanted. Even if it means having to deal with discrimination of some sort because they have succeeded in creating welcoming spaces where they can be their trueselves with people that understand their struggles. I really loved the parallels between the two songs as they both create a jovial mood, and optimistic outlook through the lyrics. For instance, in Home, I loved watching Dorothy have a solo where she’s standing in the middle of the stage looking straight at the audience singing “When I think of home;I think of a place; where there is love overflowing”. The actress who performs this song does an amazing job of displaying her emotions for the audience, and making us teary eyed that she isn’t home with her family and community. However, in Everybody rejoice, everyone is on stage with Dorothy singing the lyrics “Everybody come out; And let’s commence to singing joyfully; Everybody look up; And feel the hope that we’ve been waiting for.” They are all in sync, dancing the same choreography, and harmonizing beautifully. By everything being in sync while they are singing, it further goes on to show how African Americans know that regardless of any obstacles they face, they will always have each other there to help; they are never truly alone. This song succeeds in highlighting the optimism within the black community that things will get better if they just believe.
This performance of The Wiz! Live was excellent. The team behind this production was able to keep the same message that came from the popular 1978 movie and the musical that came before that, but updated how the message was being told for a younger generation. This message is clear to Black people, and it is “we love you, you belong here, and it’s going to be okay.” Being that the show premiered in 2015, soon after it was announced that Donald Trump would be the next President of the United States, this message was definitely necessary. The show premiered on NBC, granting people who may have not been able to see the show otherwise a chance to experience it. The showrunners were cautious of this and did not try to force traditional musical theatre norms on the screen. Instead, the production did things that Black Americans would do in order to not alienate them. They also deliberately made the show brighter than the movie, which had dark undertones, in order to keep the audience feeling positive. It is a great watch, and both of us would watch it again (or rather, on a brand new day:D )