No this is not a missive against Obama although the analogy is perfect. Rather it is a reflection on the Motown production of 1978 as I watched again last evening with the family.
Seeing The Wiz reminds me so much of the 70s assumptions of a Cold War malaise, approaching calamity and the naive birth of a young black post-soul consciousness throwing off the fetters of an older generation. Adults changed into children all over that film. Diana Ross' Dorothy wasn't dreaming of getting away and going somewhere over the rainbow so much as she was an overgrown child with a dog instead of her own child - a naif who had never been south of 125th Street in Harlem, who only got swept away by accident, chasing a puppy less afraid of the world than she.
The arrival in Oz begins at night. The evil witch has turned the Munchkins into grafitti. They are freed by the accident as with the original and dance with glee. They wear apple caps and windowpanes. They do fliplops and Arabians. They are led by Miss One, a woman with an abacus around her neck reminding me of something I was supposed to know but never really did, growing up in LA. We black people play The Numbers. It is one of our cultural characteristics, like the soul stirrings and hip shaking with the tattooed couplet rhyme and the $10 word for emphasis. It is only when Ted Ross' lion plays against it that we realize how very highschool much of this was. But Ted's for later. For now I only remember that I was supposed to know, on the 'blackness' quizzes I got in my own high school days how exactly to figure out the day's number. It had something to do with the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Tell me if you know.
Oz continues into a post-apocalyptic ruin, a tenement overrun by crows with nothing but rubble around the sole existing building - rubble that extends to the eastern horizon. The King of Naifs, Michael Jackson executes his great performance to futility, the crow national anthem 'You Can't Win' (you can't break even and you can't get out of the game).
Attending his ecstatic liberation is the kind of fragmented aphorisms of context-free fortune cookie commentary that spews from his chest of garbage. He dances and spins with Ross across a yellow brick bridge. The cabs won't take them anywhere. They have to walk the walk to wherever it is they're going, and there's the only decent lesson I can take from this new version, something I interpret in a way I assume to be completely different from the old racial complaint.
At some point we get to the Poppies, seventies versions of today's booty girls, who by any contemporary standard are remarkably tame. And while I can certainly remember a lot more talk about herpes in those days than these, I find a bit of nostalgia for the time when sex was dirty and everybody knew it. Such is the abbreviated lurid segment of the Wiz treatment, sex and drugs, shacking up in a one-two punch to the soul. It tumbled our naive heroes to their momentary doom in a puff of purple smoke, and we all knew it.
Evilleene, or however that name is spelled embodies all sorts of hideousness at a limbic level. She's got evil skin, an evil fat frame bulging with blisters of red junk, a scathing peircing voice and a whip. Oh that whip. All she needed was a red hankerchief on her head and she'd have been the Beulah from Hell. I forget the actual archtype's name - check your Donald Bogle for details, but it's all in there. A kind of inverse Chaka Khan's I'm Every Woman. Everything you don't want done, she does it naturally.
And that was the last of them, I think. Because the Wiz mixed the young with the old and put babies in with Lena Horne and chic black socialites who presaged the Obama head angle walzed around the World Trade Center just to be seen green provided the new counterbalance to every grubby Fred Sandford there ever was in Hollywood's Apartheid. Or so it seemed to me as a child when Ren Woods and then Stephanie Mills became heroines from being the Dorothy of our dreams. The Wiz was Diana Ross' last gasp and marked her need to get out of our lives, the old ham. Leave it to Michael, please. Put more and more and more black people on the screen, not just the same old heads coming back to Charleston Blue, whatever the hell that meant.
The Wiz stood on the edge of the old soul world and presaged the new post-soul world. And kids like me back in 1978 knew we were supposed to respect Nipsey Russell, but we didn't know for what. I guess he was about as upitty as a black entertainer could afford to be, and thus a mere shadow of Don Rickles - but I could tell he was trying. But he still coudln't say shit, literally, which probably accounts for the outburst of hiphop, my generation's dubious contribution to the art of entertainment. But it took a post-apocalyptic vision to accomplish it, back in the days when we could still only imagine a Chocolate City which required Aretha Franklin and James Brown. The Queen and the Godfather. Of what? Of Soul. How quaint.
Beyond that, you could see they had no idea of what the future might hold, and so held on to power way too long - God damn you Baby Boom, you greedy, self-centered fools. You cheated your way to the top and now you blew it all. Some days I feel like Charlton Heston on the Apes beach looking up at charbroiled Liberty, the very icon of the 70s films that were the soul of that generation. They knew they were headed to self-destruction, and in that little spot where they left things untended some little black weeds sprouted out - suffused with naive hope out of a ruin that there would be a road to ease on down.
So, as usual, there is no great Wizard. You have to believe in yourself. You have to take frightening journeys with unbalanced half-wit characters through bizarre lands to recognize... what? Your ability to survive absurdity? Why go through the trouble? Why suffer through the vain rantings of a wanna-be king with a name like Fleetwood Coupe de Ville? Why run through a maze chased by smelly monkeys? Why? Because Bert Lahr and Judy Garland did it a generation before, and we have to have our own funked-up version of the same old lesson without which some black obsession would suggest its all only a white man's world. We couldn't even leave them Oz. Them. Us.
The Wiz is now three ways an American Classic as it joins the repetoire of standards of summer theatre. There was the original, then the black cast, and now the kid cast. My own baby girls are going to audition this week. Everyone wants to be Miss One, and we'll see. But all the girls this time around will have the traditional black hairdo of braids and extensions down here in the South Bay. We already spent our hundreds a couple weeks ago. This time the pendulum swings post-modern, and The Wiz is for kids, like it should be. I imagine that it's progress for this next generation to step into the roles and understand literally what it takes to put on the show, rather than wait for the cast album to hit the stores and the movie to make ABC Sunday Night At The Movies. I did it is always better than I watched it.
So now I critiqued it.