by Ashia Ajani
I saw NBC’s The Wiz Live! as soon as I got word that it was available on the website (it is available until the 21st of December, go and get your life.
As someone who grew up on the motion picture version of The Wiz (1979), can sing all the original songs, and is fiercely defensive of Nipsey Russell as the Tinman – even though he talk-sings through most of the performance – I was so excited to see how director Kenny Leon was going to translate it to a new generation of viewers.
The casting was magnificent. Nineteen-year-old Shanice Williams (Dorothy) has some pipes on her, and it was a great move on Leon’s part to have Stephanie Mills, the original Broadway Dorothy play the part of Auntie Em.
The costumes were colorful and rich, translating well into contemporary fashion, while also maintaining the magic of musical theater costume. Amber Riley (Addaperle, the Good Witch of the North) murdered “He’s the Wizard” and Mary J. Blige’s voice was a perfect fit for Evillene, the Wicked Witch of the West (no shade). I will also give Ne-Yo his props for a heartbreaking version of “If I Could Feel.” Elijah Kelley danced with everything he had during classic,“You Can’t Win” and as well his other numbers; Michael Jackson would have been proud.
And who never told us Uzo Aduba can sing? Watching her descend from the sky was life changing. All that Black girl magic up on that stage was too much for me to handle. My eyes got teary just looking at Amber Riley, Uzo Aduba and Shanice Williams interact on stage.
Props to choreographer Fatima Robinson who slipped contemporary Black dances into elaborate musical numbers, mixing past and present for dance numbers that blew me away. As I watched the performance, I kept thinking of Diana Ross, Lena Horne and of course, Michael Jackson, and how well the present day cast emulated their magic. I got so wistful: I imagined my grandmother watching her favorite play as I watched Shanice Williams belt out “Home,” and recognized the timelessness of this piece of art.
Perhaps the real magic in this musical lies in the fact that it has an all-Black cast (save for one white dude background dancer) with diverse voices, body types, natural hairstyles and characters in gender-nonconforming clothing. It is no wonder this show absolutely bodied previous NBC musicals.
Circulating social media, there is a picture of a little Black girl standing in front of a TV, watching Uzo Aduba in all her golden-robbed, dark-skinned glory sing “If You Believe” to Shanice Williams. That image sums up the importance of this musical. Seeing magical Black people, especially magical Black women, is crucial to young Black children.
Knowing that you can be magical, that you can be powerful and beautiful and talented gives you a sense of self. As Lena Horne (Glinda the Good Witch) said in the motion picture: “home is knowing your mind, your heart, your courage.” The Wiz taught me, like it taught and will continue to teach other little Black girls, that we have a home: that we have a place where we are loved and cherished. And that the place resides within ourselves.