Editor’s Note: In this monthly feature, our arts and culture reporter takes a deeper look at the local arts scene, shining a spotlight on issues and trends, both local and national, and the arts makers in our community.
“I’ve worked at regional theaters, and this is the slot that carries a theater through the year,” said Kelli Foster Warder, director and choreographer of The 5th Avenue Theatre’s production of “The Wiz” (running through Dec. 23), during a conversation in early November.
For many regional theaters across the country, the holiday season is the perfect time to put your best show forward, to stage a production that you know will appeal to as many potential theatergoers as possible. That’s (at least in part) why you’ll see so many productions of “A Christmas Carol” crop up. That sort of tradition brings families together and puts folks in seats, an especially crucial task as theaters climb their way out of pandemic holes.
So it’s not lost on me that 5th Avenue has decided to put “The Wiz,” a cultural touchstone for many in the Black community, in this crucial slot. The show — a retelling of L. Frank Baum’s children’s novel “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” as a story of a 20-something schoolteacher in Harlem — originally premiered on stage in 1974, but it hasn’t seen a Broadway stage since the 1980s. And now 5th Ave has placed it in its holiday season spotlight during a 2022-23 season that includes not one, but two musicals from perhaps the greatest musical theater composer in history in Stephen Sondheim, and another wildly popular musical in “Les Misérables.” To produce “The Wiz” with an all-Black, predominantly local cast with the kind of budget 5th Avenue is capable of, at a crucial time of the year, presents a rare opportunity for these artists to give the city’s Black community a space to laugh and see themselves represented on stage in a big way.
“It was important to me,” Foster Warder said, “that the Seattle Black community felt seen and heard. Shows I’d worked on previously only had a few Black folks in it, which even made it more important to me, to feel like we were reaching out and giving the local folks the opportunity to be on this stage at their holiday time telling this story.”
When Seattle actors Be Russell, who will play The Wiz in 5th Avenue’s production, and her sister Sarah, who is playing Addaperle, the Good Witch of the North, started telling folks in their community about the show, Be said that there was a sense of excitement and a tinge of disbelief that the show was happening, especially somewhere like 5th Avenue.
“When we told them that we were in ‘The Wiz’, they lost it,” Be said of her family, which has deep roots in Seattle. “Most of the family in my dad’s generation did grow up in the ’70s, they were here in the ’70s in Seattle. And for them, ‘The Wiz’ was such a big part of how they celebrated their Blackness and their culture.”
I’ve been met with surprisingly few opportunities over the years to catch “The Wiz” on stage. I can recall one, a Chicago-themed take on the musical in a mid-sized theater in the Windy City. When asked about their earliest interactions with the stage musical, the Russells pointed to a high school production and a Village Theatre KIDSTAGE production, both of which featured Sarah performing. Foster Warder recalled a smaller high school production in South Minneapolis, but said she wasn’t able to make it to a professional production on stage growing up.
“The Wiz” has made it to Broadway twice since its world premiere: First, in 1975, with a production starring Stephanie Mills as Dorothy and André De Shields as The Wiz that garnered seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical.
Wanda Herndon, a former senior vice president of global communications for Starbucks and founder of consulting firm W Communications, said that original Broadway production blew her away.
“To see people who look like me, in all their majestic glory, telling a story of hope and love and support for other inhabitants of the world who may be different than themselves — I mean, it touched me and still resonates with me today,” said Herndon, a longtime 5th Avenue board member.
The show then received a Broadway revival in 1984. But it’s the 1978 movie version, featuring stars like Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Lena Horne, Nipsey Russell and Richard Pryor that solidified “The Wiz” as iconic. It’s the first version of the story that pops into my head whenever someone says “The Wiz.”
“I don’t actually remember life without ‘The Wiz,’” said Foster Warder. “Growing up in the ’70s, because of when the movie came out, that was right in my most formative years. Those were the people that I looked up to, idolized, wanted to be.”
For Foster Warder and the Russell sisters, the music became part of their normal household rotation, able to be slotted in right alongside Jackson’s other hits. Ross sings “Home” to cap Dorothy’s story with a powerhouse ballad, and “Ease on Down the Road” replaces a “We’re Off to See the Wizard” skip with an R&B jam. Even Luther Vandross appears on the movie’s album, credited for composing “Everybody Rejoice/A Brand New Day,” the high-energy celebration that puts “Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead” to shame.
“Those songs are entrenched in my DNA,” Foster Warder said. “I grew up in a really white community with my Black family, so there was even more stuff to grab. Like, look at the beauty of who I am when maybe the world is not celebrating the beauty of where I come from or my people. Here, ‘The Wiz’ showed me so much depth, beauty, style.”
Kataka Corn, who stars as Dorothy in 5th Avenue’s production, said that they had seen the movie once as a child, but came back to it later in life as they started adding songs from the show to their audition book. As Corn and the cast of “The Wiz” prepare to take the stage, they’re aiming to uplift this story of hope and show a journey that puts Dorothy in a world where truly anything is possible. Foster Warder has crafted her production so that all of the folks in power in the story are people who look like Dorothy, a layer of representation that hopefully resonates with their audiences.
“What is so amazing about any iteration of ‘The Wiz’ is that what carries is the Black excellence and Black joy throughout,” said Corn, who added that now “The Wiz” is one of their favorite movies to watch. “I know that I have so many students who look like me, look up to me, and are going to see me on stage and see all these beautiful people on stage and be like, ‘Wow, my Blackness is valid.’ And that’s a journey I’m still taking. No matter what age, you can still be on this journey of identity.”