Sunday morning, during the first all-call rehearsal for the mash-up-medley of “The Wiz,” Brian Harlan Brooks stood in front of the room and explained all the ways it touched him to choreograph this presentation. He represented the majority of us when he confirmed for Andre De Shields, Ken Page, Dee Dee Bridgewater and Lillias White, the four principals from touring and Broadway productions of the original show 40 years ago, that we are direct beneficiaries of their efforts. Some of us saw it when we were kids. A few of us audition with songs from the show. Brian and I have been known to sit with friends and dissect dance sequences for hours, noting the hilarious details only a large flatscreen can show.
Brian also echoed De Shield’s sentiments that this is an important time for 35 black artists to share the studio and the stage.
Because days before, when the Eric Garner verdict came out, Brian huddled the dancers to explain that here and now and with this work, we had an opportunity to protest. He confessed that he aimed his palpable anger, ready as anyone else’s (mine, ours) to bulldoze buildings, annihilate police stations and raze legislation, into the creation of every mess around, developpe, passé and spiral.
And while the concept may not be original – Marvin Gaye recorded “Mercy, Mercy Me” and Nina Simone wrote, well, entire albums – it is effective, and we are its beneficiaries as well. The dowries for our divine marriages of craft to career had been paid by people of color brave enough to perform their discontent or work in spite of it.
So on Sunday morning, we had church. Not the kind regulated by dogma or judgment, but plunged in the perfect understanding of our assembly and our calling. Our sermon on legacy was delivered in four parts by originals who made clear the good, bad and sustaining impacts the show had on them. Tom Viola and staff at Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, ushers unaware until that moment how affirming was their idea to make this the opening number for Gypsy of the Year 2013, sat teary-eyed. And the active congregation of dancers and singers were riveted with our Amens. Because within the privilege of performing, every step is both balm drop and picket, every note both poultice and bullhorn. And we understood that the love and festivity not capturable on video would be felt by a packed New Amsterdam Theatre for whom our worth could not be annexed to some factoid about ticket sales or relegated to a conversation about our color.
The presentation was spectacular, and I say it with no ego, only excitement to have participated and relief that I did it any justice. It was an even more brilliant investment of mind, heart and nerve, as all of us had consulted the wizard on Sunday for reminders of what we had in spades to begin with.
Now, Devin’s involuntary, constant full-body (literally) focus pull, Desmond’s chair warm-up and Lillias’ full company class stage left really deserve their own blog, so I’ll save it. And of course there was my stint singing on a handheld microphone for the first time as Dee Dee Bridgewater—all the ambiguity I left in the sentence applies. Another blog.
And by the way, if there are producers quietly trying to figure out how to revive “The Wiz,” at least 12 minutes of the show are done if you stick with BC/EFA’s choices of choreographer and director….