ISSUES, RESOURCES & LESSON PLANS
BRAND NEW DAY: REPRESENTATION in the AMERICAN MUSICAL
|City Center Encores! Summer Stars Series (2009)|
To examine the intersection of race and representation in the performing arts, film and television; examine what stories about our own culture and communities mean to us in the context of popular culture.
African-American historian, author and activist, W.E.B. DuBois believed that Black Theatre should be "for us, by us, about us and near us." Following the gains of the Civil Rights movement, a new generation of black playwrights and performers were inspired and empowered to share stories that centered on black heritage and culture.
While the components of a strong Black Aesthetic Movement were evident to various degrees in American society and culture in the 1970s, the impact on Broadway and the mainstream commercial theater was still limited. The Wiz broke new ground on Broadway in 1975 and has continued to resonate for more than 40 years. In response to a 2009 production, critic Jack Viertel explained to Playbill:
“Until The Wiz, black Broadway fell largely into two categories: jazzy, energetic shows that exploited black culture and style without even acknowledging the racial divide in the United States, and Civil Rights plays and musicals that made racial politics their central subject. The Wiz did something both bolder and more casual: it took a favorite "white" story, and refashioned it in African-American stylistic terms. It dared to say to a largely white audience: you may think this is your story, but it really belongs to all of us. It's just a really good story. And we can tell it in our culture in our own way; if you are willing to listen, you will hear it anew.”
Following the recent broadcast of The Wiz Live! a new generation of audience members enthusiastically responded to the relevance and power of the musical, including author and blogger Cheyenne. She writes in her essay The Unapologetic Blackness Of “The Wiz”:
“The theme of self-discovery, bonds of friendship, and epic journey home filled with unyielding determination are all given completely different meanings when a Black girl is the one to don the proverbial ruby red slippers. The racebending of this classic story doesn't end just there; willpower and belief in oneself carry more complexity as they translate to Black liberation in the adventures of Dorothy and her friends. The movie—and franchise as a whole—shifts the perspective of a timeless tale to one that speaks so loudly to people who have historically been shut out of media geared to that sort of positivity.
CULTURE: the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively; the attitudes and behavior characteristic of a particular social group; the attitudes and behavior characteristic of a particular social group.Source: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/culture
BLACK AESTHETIC MOVEMENT: Based on the cultural politics of Black Nationalism, which were developed into a set of theories referred to as the Black Aesthetic, the movement sought to create a populist art form to promote the idea of black separatism. The literature of the movement, generally written in black English vernacular and confrontational in tone, addressed such issues as interracial tension, sociopolitical awareness, and the relevance of African history and culture to blacks in the United States.Source: https://www.britannica.com/event/Black-Arts-movement
RACEBENDING: a new term coined in 2010 to describe a process where a character's perceived race or ethnicity is changed in a narrative by an adapter as it is created in a new media form. While long used to discriminate against minorities, there are increasing instances of adaptors adding diversity or a new perspective to a story.Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Racebending
Pg 9 L.3,
Pg 10 SL.1.d, R1.4, W.3.d., W.4
- What does it feel like when you see characters who look like you -- who share similar experiences and the same world view – depicted on the stage or in film or television? In what ways do you feel that your cultural identity is underrepresented or stereotyped? What stories are not being told?
- Unbelievably, The Wiz is more than 40 years old. Does the vernacular and overall sensibility of this “urbanized” retelling of The Wizard of Oz reflect an accurate portrayal of current black culture? In what ways has the urban experience changed for minority groups in the past 40 years, and how is that reflected—or not—in popular culture?
- Do you believe that The Wiz is exclusively a “black” musical? Would you be comfortable with a production that was cast with white actors? Do you think non-black audiences experience the production in the same way as their black counterparts? The idea of self-discovery and the celebration of freedom/liberation play an important role in this adaptation. In what ways do the characters and themes of The Wiz reflect black culture?
DON’T NOBODY BRING ME NO BAD NEWS: SPREADING THE WORD ABOUT THE WIZ
SL.1, SL.5 pg2, W.6 pg 10, SL.1.a pg 10, SL.1.d pg2
|A marketing campaign for NBC’s The Wiz Live (2015)|
To examine how information and news is shared in both the past and the present, and how peer groups and word-of-mouth can motivate people into taking action.
When The Wiz opened at the Majestic Theater in January 1975, the audience for Broadway musicals was overwhelmingly white, and they did not show up. The show’s producing partner, 20th Century-Fox, had used a traditional approach to market the Broadway show: get the critics to previews and wait for their response. When their response was lukewarm at best, the marketing team decided that this was an unconventional show, and they needed to spread the word in an unconventional way. In his book Black Broadway, Stewart Lane remembers:
The Wiz received poor reviews from New York critics, and it did not seem that the faltering production could withstand the assault. But shortly after the opening, an editorial appeared in the New York Amsterdam News—the oldest black paper in the country—urging black theatergoers to see the play. The editorial explained that white critics might be unable to respond to a story “produced by Blacks, sung by Blacks, and seen predominantly by Blacks on opening night.” Mainstream critics also might not understand references to black culture or appreciate the use of black vernacular and the message of black pride. It was therefore up to the people to see and spread the word about this great musical. Spurred by the editorial and subsequent reviews from the black community, as well as by a robust television ad campaign—only the second in Broadway history—sales soared and The Wiz became a huge hit, running for 1,672 performances.
Another new tactic was used: encouraging black churches to launch a major word-of-mouth marketing effort. It started at the Cornerstone Baptist Church (where Stephanie Mills, who played Dorothy, started singing as a child) and turned into a chain reaction of parishioners from a host of churches calling on their families and friends. Now an established practice in selling Broadway tickets to groups, recent shows like Memphis and Motown experienced robust sales with this approach.
PERSONAL REFLECTION EXERCISE: CULTURAL MAPPING
Make a list of all the cultural/social groups that you identify with. Draw three concentric circles. The center circle is YOU. In proximity to the center circle write the name of each cultural identifier that shapes and gives meaning to your world based on its importance. For instance, your race or gender might be very close to that center circle, whereas your participation to a club or group might be located in one of the outer rings.
Once you have created a visual representation of your cultural influences, write a list of the people in your life who have helped define your values and sense of purpose. In a different color pen or pencil, write the names of family members, friends, mentors, teachers, coaches on your diagram based on their level of influence. Finally, make a list of experiences that have a made an impact in your life. In yet another color, map out the experiences on your diagram based on their influence.Look at the drawing you have created and write about your personal discovery of self and what you have learned from your journey.
ENGAGE: APPLY THE MAP
- Split students into groups, with each group selecting a recent movie or event.
- Invite each group to create a marketing plan for their film based on their own cultural mapping results (above) and media consumption. List the primary "marketing messages" that could be used to speak to family and friends. Why should they come?
- How would you spread the word? Are there meeting places (physical or digital) that offer opportunity? What advertising or editorial posts would reach your groups, and through what media or technology? What new approaches could be used?
ACTIVITY #3WHAT IS “HOME”?
To explore how home does (or does not) reflect personal and cultural identity, and how the concept of home can change through personal experience.
At the beginning of The Wiz, Dorothy feels that Kansas isn’t where she belongs. Her journey to Oz changes her mind, but it takes struggle, sacrifice and new perspectives to gain that understanding. As Jennifer Giarrusso suggests in her lesson plan, Seeking a Home: The Wiz and the Black Arts Movement, the musical:
“…is full of scenes of liberation, which inevitably leaves the characters searching for a new place of safety, acceptance, and freedom—a new home. In the nationalist, separatist beliefs that girded the Black Arts Movement one might read a search for “home”— a place liberated from white oppression, where black people could have something of their own that was not defined by the white mainstream culture.”
Finding home is not just about a sense of “belonging” in our communities, but also about being at peace with ourselves in the search. The lyrics of the song “Home” point to Dorothy’s uncertainty:
But still I know where I'm going
I have had my mind spun around in space
And yet, I've watched it growing
Please don't make it hard to know
If we should believe the things that we see
Tell us, should we try to stay
Or should we run away
Or is it better just to let things be?
Watch Stephanie Mills (Dorothy in the 1975 musical) sing “Home” with Shanice Williams (Dorothy in the 2015 live TV broadcast on NBC).
W.3.d, W.6 pg 10, SL.1
- How do you personally define “home”? What aspects, if any, of “home” anchor you? What aspects, if any, of “home” confine and limit your dreams?
- How does your environment and/or community change who you are? In what ways does the core nature of who we are stay the same regardless of where we are or who we are with? How does pushing yourself or being pushed out your comfort zone lead to personal transformation?
The centerpiece of this lesson plan from the Yale National Initiative is the 1978 film The Wiz. Students will question what influence, if any, the Black Arts Movement had on the creation and interpretation of the film. Alongside Black Arts Movement poetry, nonfiction essays by black writers from the late 20th century and a Radiolab podcast called “Debatable,” students will examine the ways that Black Arts Movement writers used their politics and art to search for a home and the influence of that movement on later black work. This unit is intended for English Language Arts, grades 9-12.