Monday, November 16, 2015

How is the Wiz okay?

Two new videos promoting The Wiz Live! have come up...

 And also the release date of the soundtrack CD has been announced as December 18.

And also, a previously unreleased Diana Ross album titled Diana Ross Sings Songs from The Wiz will be released through digital music platforms on November 27. This album was recorded to be released the year after the film version, but was cancelled after its poor reception. It features Ross singing The Wiz songs as herself, giving it her all instead of depicting her introverted, shy Dorothy. Also included on the album is Ross singing "Wonder Wonder Why," a cut Wiz song (from the play, and perhaps also the movie, but later inserted into a 1984 revival of the play) which has never had a recording of it been released before. (Hopefully the Wiz Live! soundtrack includes "Who Do You Think You Are?" and "A Rested Body Is A Rested Mind," the other two songs that haven't had recordings released.)

That said, another thing about The Wiz has cropped up. Across several videos about the new NBC production, commenters have posted incredulous comments about the possibilities of a "black Wizard of Oz." (I guess they've missed the play and movie until now...) These range from nasty comments about expecting broken English and "ghetto talk" to calling the production appropriating white culture.

Oz and racism have had a bit of a past. L. Frank Baum was born and raised in a society where the general holding of people of color as second class citizens went unchecked. There were a few radical people with the notion that people of color deserved every bit as respect as white people, and these included Baum's own mother in law Matilda Joslyn Gage, who was even named a member of the Iroquois Council of Matrons.

While Matilda did have some palpable influence on Baum, unfortunately, Baum's writing reveals some elements that haven't aged well when he handles people of color or suggestions of them. Most troublesome are some articles he wrote about the Sioux nation, but that's been handled elsewhere. In Baum's fiction, people of color appear with their dialogue spelled phonetically and a clear mention of their ethnicity or skin color, and some such characters have the "n-word" applied to them. Baum is rarely malicious to them in his fiction, but these are still troubling to people who enjoy his work but also try to recognize social issues and attempt to raise awareness of them in hopes of fixing them.

In the Oz books, Baum never gives us any idea that the majority of people in Oz or the people who go there are anything but Caucasian and Anglo-Saxon. However, in his handling of non-human characters, Baum establishes Oz as a place where people of all types are welcome to live peacefully together. Even the less than flattering Tottenhots have a reasonable request of being left alone and in return leaving others alone. Thus, many of Baum's progressive readers hope that if Baum was a little more aware of social issues as we see them today, he'd be willing to evolve on them.

So, what about The Wiz, which in its original forms on stage and film had an entirely black cast? Is it appropriating something that belongs to white people?

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a work of fiction written by a white man. However, works of fiction may be interpreted by different people, who may often read things into them based on their own life experience. The character of Dorothy is an audience surrogate, so if a young African-American girl connects through that character, then the author's job is still done.

The Wiz takes that scenario a bit further by reinterpreting the entire story and all the characters through a vernacular of African-American culture from the 1970s. And yet, it was not disrespectful to the source. To really "appropriate" the story, the creators of The Wiz would have claimed the story as their own and not credited Baum at all. This is not the case as the original play, the film, and now NBC's new production all credit Baum as having written the original source material. (In contrast, note how many other Oz spinoffs exist that don't credit Baum at all.) I could go further about race relations, but that would begin to get quite off the topic of The Wiz.

Basically, when a work is released, it is not just to be enjoyed by one type of person, but for all, and one part of enjoyment is retelling. The Wiz is another culture's way of retelling a beloved story, and the original play—which NBC appears to be adapting more closely than the film version—is a wonderful example of how well it can work.


Marcus said...

Not that I read your blog or anything but...

Hear HEAR! Well writ!

Anonymous said...

I prefer the film version of THE WIZ more than the Broadway play. If the story can be a retelling and reinterpreting a beloved story then I think the version with DIANA ROSS captured that in the most interesting and creative original way from all the others. NBC Live's version and the Broadway show are too much like the Wizard of Oz for my taste. No real separation of originality other than the characters being all Black. The film version changed the location from country to city and made Dorothy more mature still facing the same fears and gave OZ a more gritty urban feel while still giving some beautiful eye catching scenery and to me that's what being original and fresh is all about. Many people trash the film version but to me THE WIZ with DIANA ROSS who did phenomenal in the film version along with Michael Jackson and others is by far the most distinct and original version of them all.