A Message from Kimberly Sias
Director All-City Arts
Cleveland Metropolitan School District
My first experience with The Wiz was back in the 1980’s, when I saw Stephanie Mills perform live at Public Auditorium in downtown Cleveland. I remember being absolutely mesmerized by her voice. Around the same time I was introduced to the 1978 film version with Diana Ross and Michael Jackson, which was well on its way to becoming a cult classic. Once cable TV and VCRs became a “thing” in home entertainment, The Wiz was one of the movies my friends and family played constantly. While the iconic songs and costumes were certainly unforgettable, the musical taps into something greater: it’s about dreaming bigger dreams for ourselves as we journey through life.
As we unpacked the characters and ideas of The Wiz together, it became important to me that our student actors sharpen their creativity and use their imaginations. The fantasy element of The Wiz makes imagination a critical tool, and we spent a lot of time discussing the world these characters inhabit: what the social and political hierarchy might be, their awareness of and access to the different ‘neighborhoods’ that Dorothy and her friends visit, and the impact of the changes in power structure that follow in Dorothy’s wake.
It is my hope that these “What If?” discussions translate into their—and as an audience, your own—everyday thoughts about life. Young people today are not always challenged to simply imagine life’s possibilities, despite the fact that imagination—coupled with hard work, of course—is the driving force of the global economy. Someone imagined the power of a mobile phone, the ability to “Google” anything with a few clicks, and the benefits of a self-driving car. Our actors are charged with becoming the next great imaginers of their time, and Dorothy and her friends help show us how to “ease on down” that road.
In fact, there is a magical moment during Act 2 when the citizens of Oz realize that they can go on without The Wiz. Through the power of suggestion (and song!) they shift from viewing themselves as followers to owning their ability to lead. This transition isn’t a pivotal moment in the arc of the play, but for me it mirrors all of the milestones that young people face: going to school for the first time, moving from the cocoon of elementary school to high school, and then graduation and the new possibilities that follow. With each step, students are nudged to take responsibility for their own yellow brick road.
But the road isn’t easy, and our own rehearsal process provides an example of the challenge. An actor in any play is charged with constantly revisiting and staying true to their character’s objective. One would think that this would be easy in a play about four people who are on a quest. But it is interesting to watch the actors get distracted by their costumes or props, or work so hard to make a joke ‘land’ that they lose focus on who their character is and what their character ultimately wants. We see this phenomenon in the script as well when the Lion gets left behind in the field of poppies. It forces us to ask: What will we do when day-to-day challenges pull focus away from our goals? How do we stay on the path?
Dorothy and her friends come across many obstacles on their quest to see the Wiz. Their unlikely friendship serves as the foundation for many mini-victories along the way, and encourages them forward. Yet the individual strength and resilience they each possess is what truly leads them to success. The irony is that what each character thinks of as a weakness is actually a strength they have not yet identified in themselves. That’s the true journey—and destination—that we all must realize in life.