The Wiz: The Journey of Black America Behind the Curtain

A dialogue between Annie Chen and Joanna Lundquist:

Joanna: Hello! My name is Joanna Lundquist, and I am a junior studying political science. I am very grateful that I got to view The Wiz Live and examine how it gave racial representation to the African American community. I have always been a big fan of Wicked the musical, so it was very exciting to see another adaptation of the traditional Wizard of Oz movie. 

Annie: Hey! This is Annie Chen. I’m a junior studying Sociology and Business. Here my partner Joanna and I will analyze the relationship between the black culture and The Wiz. I like watching The Wiz, the particular reason for the circumstance is that The Wiz expressed the truth of life which is insistence. Besides, The Wiz reflects the real life of people in the United States in the 20th century.

Joanna: Annie and I both were both intrigued by different parts of the The Wiz, which made this experience even more insightful. Personally, I was intrigued by why The Wiz was so necessary to be produced and how it acts as a cultural statement. The lyrics from many different songs were very poignant to me, so I was drawn to how different characters are able to say so many impactful things through so few words, and within the context of something that could simply be understood as a story rather than a historical account and rallying cry for justice and cultural appreciation all in one production.  

Annie: It’s very nice to see that we both love watching broadway musicals. Can you share some points of views on the purpose of The Wiz Live? 

Joanna: Of course! To start off, The Wiz is a necessary production for African Americans, because they still need representation within the United States, and it is important for everyone to see and hear both the struggles and successes within their community. 

Racial liberation for African Americans within the United States is not something that was fully gained during the Civil Rights Movement – it is something that is continually fought for by African Americans and that should be fought for by all Americans. ‘The Wiz’ 1975 Broadway Musical certainly emerged out of the progress made socially and economically in the Civil Rights Era, but “The Wiz Live!’ was (and is) the progressive political statement that Black America needed in 2015 and still needs today. NBC’s television event, produced by Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, shows that Black lives matter, social progress and representation matter, and that Black culture and identity need to be celebrated alongside this fight for progress. Did you see that the plot says anything about progress in this way?

Annie: Sure! The theme of the play is the persistence of the African American dream despite the difficulties. The original stage play uses Dorothy’s journey home from the land of Oz to explore slavery, liberation, great migration and faith, while the film updates it to the post civil rights era. The whole story is mainly about an amazing journey. When Dorothy and her dog Toto were blown into the land of Oz by a tornado, she set off on a long journey back to the land she misses everyday. She met the scarecrow, tin man, and the lion on the way to Emerald city. They went through many hardships to forge ahead for the common goal. Finally, the scarecrow became wise, and the tin man became loving, and the lion became brave, and so did Dorothy and her little dog. The most attractive part of a classic is that people can interpret various deep-seated connotations from different aspects, and the wizard of Oz is no exception. Even if it’s just a simple fairy tale, it will still make people feel more meaningful after watching it countless times. The Wiz was more than an all-Black musical but a powerful critique of anti-Blackness and racism within America. The Wiz pays homage to African American culture and black identity on Broadway. 

Joanna: I agree that it is a powerful critique of anti-Blackness and racism within America. ‘The Wiz Live!’ seamlessly addresses economic turmoil historically for Black people within the United States, while pronouncing the message that it is difficult for an individual to overcome challenges alone so strong community is needed to overcome obstacles in the face of adversity and discrimination. Dorothy and her companions all work together in order to overcome their personal struggles and end up making progress because of their strength, determination, and support for one another, which I believe reverberates the sentiment of the Black community today. You also mentioned the companions that Dorothy meets along her way – do you have any ideas about how they serve the purpose of this musical?

Annie: Interesting! The way you speak about ties in African American culture with history and media provides a good start for our conversation. The characteristics of the scarecrow, the tin man, and the lion both play an important role in saying about the racial analysis and the deeper meaning of the show. In fact, scarecrow is not stupid. Whenever he encounters difficulties, he will try to come up with brilliant ideas at the first time. When there was a gully, he immediately thought of letting the lumberjack cut down the big tree to cross the bridge; the huge lion was poisoned in the poppy, and the scarecrow tried to make a stretcher and gather the power of his partners to carry the lion out of the sea of flowers; when he met the poisonous bee, the scarecrow immediately thought of taking out his straw and spreading it on Dorothy and the lion to protect their flesh and blood. When the scarecrow sings the chorus part, the crows live in harmony with him, showing a sense of brotherhood and unity. I think the picture and the tone of affection illustrate the power of the black community in America, and the wizard of green fields conveys this message to a wider audience. 

In addition, the tin man is not heartless. He is considerate from beginning to end. He would shed tears even if he stepped on a small beetle; when the vole was chased by a wild cat, he did not hesitate to help; he did not want to see any small animals hurt, otherwise he would shed tears and rust himself. What’s more, the lion often feels timid, but he often has to face many things alone in the long journey. When meeting the fierce and cruel monster Calida, the lion’s heart beats, but he bravely turns to challenge both of them and protects Dorothy behind them. When meeting the Winky on the road, the lion bravely roars and drives away the Winky who attacked them. Even if the lion is caught and becomes the prisoner of the evil witch, the lion is not soft hearted and stubbornly confronts the witch to the end. They experienced all kinds of things in their journey. In the end, they gain the ability they want to have in the constant honing.The black community has been fighting oppression because stereotypes and racist attitudes make it difficult for many black individuals to succeed. Do you have any ideas how the witches represent as an essential part for the characters I mentioned above?

Joanna: Definitely! I think the witches are able to shed some light on how the United States has been fractured by slavery, and how ironic to its name, unity does not ring true within the nation. Throughout the musical, I have pictured the land of Oz as a stratified society, where the citizens exist under different conditions depending on the place in which they dwell. This stratification based on the dominion of the witches, depicting the good witches of the North and South and the ‘wicked’ witches of the East and West, blatantly exists in my mind as a reverberation of the division between the North and the South both during the time of succession and within the portrayal of the Black experience and acceptance within each region. When the Wicked Witch of the West, Eveline, stormed onto the stage in her carriage and her servants bowed down at the wheels while chanting “All hail Eveline,” I witnessed a clear representation of slavery. The lighting during this scene is lowered, and the shadow of evil cast upon the United States with the proliferation of slavery is evident. The Wiz Live! blatantly reveals oppressive constructions. The choreography with Eveline stealing center stage and towering over her servants uses the physicality of the actors and actresses to portray inequality, while Eveline’s actions such as when she trips one of her indentured servants and laughs at them sprawled on the ground reveals the despicable cruelty that defines slavery.

I often find it necessary to reflect on how the United States as a whole needs to accept that slavery and the continual oppression of African Americans is a national rather than a regional issue. Often times, we relegate the atrocity of slavery to the South, when the sentiment and inequality of slavery ran rampant across the United States. In “Don’t Bring Me No Bad News” by Mabel King, Eveline sings the lyrics “Don’t nobody bring me no bad news ‘Cause I wake up already negative And I’ve wired up my fuse,” which I understand to have multiple meanings indicative of the unaccountability of the United States for slavery throughout history. On a smaller level, I hear the lyrics describing the relationship between a plantation owner and their slaves, where the owner instills fear and asserts domination. However, on a larger scale I see the United States not wanting to deal with the consequences of the nation’s actions. Like Eveline can not bear to have “bad news” burst her bubble, the United States has often existed in denial of the full depth of slavery and how it has lasting, detrimental effects on the African American community in the present day. Did you also recognize any connections between The Wiz and the historical impact of slavery or oppression as well? Your depictions of Dorothy’s companions were very insightful earlier, so did they help in any of these connections if you have any?

Annie: This is exact what I want to say next! Let me give an example from The Wiz to show the relevance to the political and historical opinions. The scarecrow symbolizes farmers in the Midwest of the United States. He’s smart, but naive, and is dominated by three uncontrollable factors: the environment, the economy, and the government. A mind or wisdom can help him solve these three problems. Scarecrow has a good temper. He is like a tumbleweed on the deserted grassland, like Baum who stumbled through a series of early career failures. On Scarecrow’s journey in search of wisdom, it is very similar to the way that black Americans fought against racial discrimination and oppression and fought for political, economic and social equal rights from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s. The black community has been fighting oppression because stereotypes and racist attitudes make it difficult for many black individuals to succeed.  I have strong feelings with the lyrics from “You can’t win”—”people keep saying things are changing, but they look just like they’re staying the same.” This is the description of the rise of the Civil Rights Movement and even today’s Black Lives Matter movement. From a historical point of view, after the end of the civil war, the newly liberated slaves had no education and no savings, so they stayed on the original farm and continued to be farmers. The period from 1865 to 1877 was called the “reconstruction period”. The central government ruled the South directly and approved a set of laws and policies to improve the life of black people. At this time, black people could be elected to the Senate and the House of Representatives. The big farm of the government landlord was distributed to the original slaves. However, due to the political problems between the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, the Republican Party gave up the reconstruction policy in 1877, and then the southern United States began the 100-year Jim Crow system, which implemented the black-and-white separation system in all public places (shops, buses, schools). This system has seriously restricted the development of African Americans and has a profound impact on today’s racial differences.

Joanna: Through what you just told me about various parts of African American history, I can see that African Americans have definitely been shaped by both social and economic policies. I understood that the yellow brick road sort of represents this journey, with its twists and turns and ups and downs. Did you find any significance in the yellow brick road? 

Annie: To be honest, behind every literary work, there are the author’s life experiences and their experiences in the real world, and The Wiz is not an exception. In The Wiz, there was an amount of saying about a yellow brick road. The Emerald city that this road leads to refers to the capital, Washington. Oz, who lives in the city, is a complete liar – if people follow the “golden road”, the capital will be occupied by fraudsters. Scarecrow is the embodiment of farmers, and the iron woodcutter with axe represents the working class. When they found out that Oz was a liar, it was too late, because they had finished the “golden road”. At the end of the story, Dorothy finally gets help, but when she flies back to her hometown, she finds that her silver shoes are gone. At this moment, the rout of the silver faction is a foregone conclusion, and the monetary value of silver is gone forever. The author’s life experience, always imperceptibly penetrated into the works, and became a part of the works. If we look closely at these works, it is not difficult to trace these traces. In general, I think we have talked about the profound meaning of The Wiz. Do you have anything to share from the perspective of the ending? 

Joanna: Yes, the ending between The Wiz, Dorothy, and her companions was the most impactful part of the musical for me! The end of The Wiz Live! left me with a feeling of hope, and I am sure that the African American community must feel uplifted if they view this musical where they finally get recognition of their continuous struggles as well as positive representation of their culture. When Dorothy and her companions catch the Wiz in her true state and you can see the look of panic on her face and her frantic movements to put together some semblance of her usual attire and grandeur, it bares the question – what factors make her feel the need to put on a facade? When I think about the representation of the individual, I recognize that we often try to fulfill what society expects of us even when it does not coincide with our true selves. The Wiz emphasizes this notion when she says “It’s not enough to go where you’re going, you have to know where you’re coming from.” The Wiz overall shows that we have to be our authentic selves. The Wiz’s messages to Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion reveal even more about finding internal strength to fight the external pressures and expectations, as well as judgements placed upon people. To Lion, the Wiz highlights how he did show courage by “respecting danger and still taking care of business.” From this, I thought about the struggles the Black community has faced, and how members of the community valiantly work towards progress but also have to be weary of how their fight can lead to danger in terms of something like police brutality. With this in mind, it is understandable that the Wiz tells Dorothy in this scene that “it’s easier to hide in the dark” – but the musical is a rallying movement for representation and recognition that brings the Black community to the light. Glinda’s glorious descent from the ceiling in her shimmering gold costume and her belting out “believe in yourself” is one of the most empowering moments of the musical and inspires Black individuals to see hope for themselves and for finding equality within the United States. And with Dorothy’s final moment in “Like Home” at the closure of The Wiz she sings: “And I’ve learned that we must look inside our hearts to find A world full of love like yours and mine Like Home.” Dorothy’s journey is not complete, as she knows she must continue to look for love in herself and the world, but she is able to make it back to her aunt. Here, I gained the understanding that a journey is comprised of bumps in the road, but also small victories, and I see why the Wiz is often revered by African Americans within the United States. The journey for racial equality and acceptance is not complete, but the musical The Wiz is one step on the yellow brick road towards this hope in the future. 

Annie: I totally agree with your point that racial problems are still something we need to explore and analyze further in terms of the development of society. Also, I feel like our conversation is quite meaningful because we shared our personal ideas and opinions towards the incomplete system and the historical remaining issues.

Joanna: Yes, it was very meaningful. Thank you for helping me to gain even more insight into The Wiz Live!. I especially appreciated how much knowledge you shared about the history of the Civil Rights Movement and how it ties into the musical. I am eager to speak with you again, especially as we continue to see how the Black community’s fight for justice progresses. Until next time!

Annie: Yes, we should speak more about the race and ethnicity topics since the advancement of society. I really enjoy talking with you. Hope to see you next time. Have a nice day! Bye.

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