"The Wiz" On Weed: Reflecting on brains, courage, and heart on a stoned trip to Emerald City by way of Spotlighters Theatre
By Imaniyay Encespay
Apr 18, 2017 | 3:20 PM
"The Wiz" kept me from dropping out of college. My sophomore year of school, all of my friends had lost their minds and I was living with a really odd roommate who had a creepy boyfriend, but one day I sat down to watch TV and found Lena Horne singing 'Believe in Yourself.' I started sobbing and realized I had to pull my life together.
But here I am, working as a critic, coming to review the opening night performance of Spotlighters Theatre's production of the musical. And I just smoked up, which is helping me remember how this piece of art has intersected with my own life, empowering me at each step along the way—and how perfect it is with weed right now.
The musical is a modern retelling of L. Frank Baum's children's book "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" with an all-African-American cast and a soul score and lyrics by Charlie Smalls (with help from the likes of Luther Vandross, among others). With the quasi-psychedelic, fantastical source material and heady Motown-inspired showtunes, "The Wiz" basically demands a high viewing.
Spotlighters chose to have the tornado sweep Dorothy up not from Kansas, as in the original novel, or from Harlem, like in the Motown-produced film, but from here in Baltimore, and the city gets plenty of nods throughout the show after Dorothy lands in Oz. It really feels like Dorothy should have always been from Baltimore in the first place. As Spotlighters' Artistic Director Fuzz Roark pointed out in his opening remarks, the first staged production of "The Wiz" took place at the now-demolished Morris A. Mechanic Theatre on Baltimore and Charles streets in 1974, before it moved on to Broadway and the big screen.
Although the four main characters are iconic, almost archetypes, with the help of Spotlighters director Tracie M. Jiggetts, the actors behind Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Lion each seemed like unique people, whose own personalities informed the characters.
Amber Hooper brought a childlike curiosity to the role of Dorothy that reminded me of a time when I could have become Dorothy in the fifth grade. My father overhead me tell a friend I was sick and couldn't audition for "The Wiz"—even though the real reason was that I was too embarrassed to audition. He told me that if he ever heard me trying to duck out of a good opportunity again he would force me to take the chance. The lesson didn't stick. I never tried out and I never told my dad about an audition again. This all came back when I saw Hooper wearing the exact same jumper I wore in the fifth grade.
The Scarecrow (Justin Johnson) was a personal favorite, mostly because he reminded me of "High School Musical" -era Zac Efron—or really, he reminded me of the background singer Drew Sealy, whose voice was mixed with Efron's to give his weak pipes more depth. (I'm really just waiting for the day when I can write an in-depth piece on "High School Musical's" cultural impact.) The Lion (J. Purnell Hargrove) brought to the table a certain sensuality that I appreciated. Though, with exaggerated confidence it seemed a bit far fetched that he would need courage. His fear seemed less genuine than his sass, so the fear felt like the real facade. When the Wiz finally grants him courage in the form of a shot, I couldn't help but think of The Crown's "liquid courage" on Karaoke Tuesdays—just an excuse for those of us who already love karaoke to have a reason to be more ridiculous. The Tin Man (Shae Henry) was a great middle ground between the clumsiness of the Scarecrow and the flamboyance of the Lion, bringing great vocals and some slick dance moves along the way. And, in full disclosure, we attended that same high school, so it fell in line with the whole "The Wiz is meant to be set in Baltimore" vibe.
That feeling was amplified when DDM, a local rapper and one half of Bond Street District, took the stage. There will never be an Evilene, AKA the Wicked Witch of the West, as good DDM. I stand by this. His inflection, his tone, his command of the stage almost made me wish that he was the good witch. When he pulls Dorothy aside and calls her "niece" it reminded me of a time I saw DDM host an event and he gave the performers words of encouragement by calling them "niece" and it got me in my feels. For the too few moments he was on stage at Spotlighters, I was really rooting for him.
But I really started to feel at home again, spinning back through my life, watching Timothy David Copney's dynamic turn as The Wiz, especially when he delivered his final sermon with some serious "prosperity gospel" vibes—that's when a pastor preaches a sermon along the lines of "if you give this church more money God will give you more blessings." Though that is clearly a toxic theology, it felt like home. When I was growing up, one of my mother's favorite pastors was Creflo Dollar. He once famously asked his congregants to each give $300 so he could buy a $60 million dollar jet. The Wiz's sermon on reaching within yourself with the classic church organ in the background reminded me of Sunday mornings singing and clapping in church as the collection plate was passed around; I found myself waving my hands and clapping in agreement. Spotlighters' Wiz, naturally, turns out to be a regular guy from Dundalk—to me, the biggest Dundalk celebrity outside of Elmo, but that's neither here nor there.
Sitting in that small theater removed from reality and a sense of time, I actually felt a little like I was finally playing Dorothy as my impaired brain was forming what felt like random connections to the world—like how in school, the teacher would play "The Wiz" on tape and would always skip the poppy field scene. I always thought it was because of the stone-y implications of opiates but this staging made the poppies seem very sexy, and we all know how public schools hate sexiness. Dancers sauntered out dressed in frilly reds, teasing the characters with their hips, and I vaguely remember one straddling the Scarecrow. Of course the Lion tried to seduce them and Dorothy made a valiant effort to stop the sexy dancing, but they all succumbed to the power of the poppies. It was like that moment during any party where everyone is too stoned to leave so they fall asleep right where they are—but hotter.
By the time Glinda (Elaine Foster) sang the first notes of the iconic number 'Believe in Yourself' I was already crying. I tried to hide it because I'm supposed to be a tough critic, but I couldn't help myself. The production felt distinctly like home—the message didn't even feel cheesy anymore. I realized that just as the musical had previously helped me find my brains and my courage, it was, at this moment, reminding me of my heart and my home. Right now seems to be the time to remind us that everything we need is already inside of us.