(Top Left) Jayla McDonald as Dorothy, Ashton Booth as Scarecrow and Ashley Franklin and Mya Sanders as the Crows in Kinder HSPVA’s The Wiz; (Top Right) The Poppies; (Bottom Left) Jayla McDonald as Dorothy and Kinder HSPVA The Wiz cast (All Photos by Lyle Ross)
(Bottom Right) Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee presents congressional recognition award to Kinder HSPVA Principal Dr. Priscilla Rivas, The Wiz Director Joshua Denning, and Student Musical Conductor Savanah Dever at Sunday’s closing show of The Wiz
The Kinder High School for the Performing and Visual Arts ended Black History Month with a bang last weekend, as students thrilled audiences with a new take on a beloved classic. This year’s All-School Black History Production was “The Wiz,” an Afro-futuristic retelling of the classic L. Frank Baum story, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.”
The Wiz (with book by William F. Brown and music and lyrics by Charlie Smalls) first opened in Baltimore, Maryland in 1974. The show overcame mixed reviews to make it to Broadway the next year. Thanks to an editorial in the Amsterdam News – the oldest Black newspaper in the country – and a music-driven publicity campaign, the show became a hit. It went on to win seven Tony Awards, including one for best musical.
Kinder HSPVA worked with Concord Theatricals to present this reimagined revival. Director Joshua Denning called The Wiz one of his favorite musicals, adding that it’s “everything I love to see on the high school musical theatre stage!” He explains: “The Wiz was created to show that wholesome characters and stories can belong to Black actors. The Wiz does not present Black people suffering or as downtrodden servants, but rather, it is a celebration of the love and strength at the heart of the African American family and the limitless virtuosity in Black music, dance and visual arts that has been emulated around the world since the invention of jazz.
In Dorothy, the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and the Lion, we see the resilience of the Black American dream despite nearly unbeatable odds in a rigged and corrupted system that doles out false promises behind a slick mask of unreachable materialism. In our production, the Emerald City is a bustling metropolis rife with moral temptations, and the Winkies, the working poor pressed under the boot of the exploitative tyrant, Evillene.”
“In a world where faith and hope can sometimes be in short supply, I wanted to create the feeling that anything is possible,” Denning writes in his Director’s Note. And The Wiz works magic, presenting a fantastical world in which seemingly impossible hopes and dreams are realized.
The Wiz ran from February 22-26 at the Ruth Denney Theatre. Prior to the show on Saturday, February 25, HSPVA’s Black Alumni Network (BAN) held a celebratory fundraising event called the “Emerald City Experience.”
The event included a sparkling pre-show reception. Guests decked out in green mixed and mingled inside of HSPVA’s Studio Theater, where they viewed the experience through provided green-colored lenses. The event featured a live DJ (DJ Asa Davis, HSPVA Instrumental Class of 2012) and refreshments by several local food vendors, including Trez Bistro, Osso Kristalla, and Sisters Bake Cakes. The reception also featured performances by HSPVA students in all art areas: Vocal (Sydney Gibson performed Gershwin’s “Summertime”), Instrumental (trumpeter Amari Walker played Miles Davis’s “Freddie Freeloader”), Theater (Elijah Primas), Dance (Ki’Vonna Henry), Creative Writing (Jhoa Legrand), and Visual Arts (Khloe Green).
The event was hosted by HSPVA’s Black Alumni Network (BAN), which works to connect and engage Black PVA alumni. It also aims to support current student and alumni endeavors and provided resources for the next generation of HSPVA artists and professionals. Proceeds from the event will fund scholarships and summer training for Black HSPVA students.
After the Emerald City Experience on Saturday evening, guests were treated to premium seats for the performance of The Wiz in the Denney Theatre at Kinder HSPVA.
The Wiz opened with Dorothy (played by Jayla McDonald), who lives with her Aunt Em (played by Lauryn Palmer) and Uncle Henry (played by Jackson Swinton) on a farm in Kansas. But farm life isn’t easy for Dorothy, who’s often distracted from her chores, doting on her dog Toto. Aunt Em grows impatient with Dorothy’s daydreaming. But after an argument, she reassures Dorothy that she only scolds her because she wants her to be the best she can be. And in the show’s first musical number, she expresses hope that they can remain close as before (Palmer does a gorgeous rendition of “The Feeling We Once Had”).
Soon, a storm blows into town. A tornado lifts up the house and sweeps it away (dancers represent the storm winds). The house finally lands in a field, on top of Evamene, the Wicked Witch of the East. The Munchkins, who lived in fear of her, celebrate that the witch is dead, and they help Dorothy realize she’s in the land of Oz. They tell Dorothy she should ask the powerful Wizard of Oz for help getting back home to Kansas.
On her way down the yellow brick road, Dorothy meets the Scarecrow (played by Ashton Booth). After getting off the pole he’s mounted on, he tells her how he longs for a brain so that he can be like other people. He sings about his plight in his first number, “I Was Born on the Day Before Yesterday.” While he starts off feeling down-and-out (“I had holes in my shoes, and I was crying the blues/And I didn’t have a place to stay”), by the end of the song, he’s more confident than ever: “I’m gonna make it this time.”
Dorothy invites him to join her on the yellow brick road. They soon encounter the Tin Man (played by Jamie Hollins). His joints are so rusted that he can’t move, and he needs some oil (“Slide Some Oil to Me”). Being immobile was hard for Hollins: “I’m not necessarily used to playing a role where I’m so stiff that I can’t really move.”
The Tin Man explains that he lost all his limbs, which a tinsmith replaced with tin. But the one thing the tinsmith forgot to give him was a heart. That’s what he wants from the Wiz. And towards the end of Act I, he asks a poignant musical question: “What Would I Do If I Could Feel?”
This posed a big challenge for Hollins vocally. “Let me tell you, I was so scared of that song. Because in the classical setting, I’m a person in the vocal department that sings all the parts: a little bit of tenor or a little bit of bass,” he says. “I’m not used to singing that high, always singing all the way up there 24/7: High A’s, High B’s. I’m not used to singing up there all the time.
So, the hardest part about that song was actually not moving — not moving because of those notes. Those are high notes. And the way that we’re taught here is that in order to push those notes out, you make physical movement. But our director specifically told me — because I auditioned for that song with the musical, I was moving around and stuff — and he specifically told me to stand still. Ground myself. Look at the audience. Find focal points […] I would say the hardest thing about that song was making sure I was singing those notes and staying in character. Because I could sing that song as Jamie Hollins but singing that song as the Tin Man is a totally different thing.”
The Tin Man joins Dorothy and the Scarecrow. But on their way, they’re confronted by the Cowardly Lion (played by Timothy Moss). At first, he projects aggression, snarling and growling (and punching) his way through his first song, “Mean Ole Lion.” But all that bravado masks a coward. After he runs from a battle with the Kalidahs, the Lion is embarrassed by his weakness. He decides to ask the Wiz for courage. And in his second number, Dorothy helps him gain confidence (“Be a Lion”).
That number resonated particularly with Moss. He says: “For my character in particular, it’s all about bravery. Like, I really love the song ‘Be a Lion,’ because despite how beat down he was — I was — despite how beat down I was and put down I was in the situation, with help from people that believe in me, I was able to…I could truly understand that I am strong. I am brave. I am powerful. And I may not look like the other people but I am a lion. And I am beautiful.”
Like the Lion, the Wiz (Austin Gray) is masking his vulnerability, too. When the quartet arrive at Emerald City to meet him, he’s regal and domineering, demanding to know what they want. He orders them to slay Evillene, the Wicked Witch of the West. But once they do (in Act II), they find that the great, powerful Wiz isn’t all he’s cracked up to be. Unable to deliver on the promises he made, he reminds the four that they already have the things that they seek. He and Glinda (played by Laura Walls) remind the four (especially Dorothy) to “Believe in Yourself.”
That number proved especially true for Jayla McDonald, who plays Dorothy. “I tend to beat myself up a lot, which is not great,” she admits. But she says taking things one step at a time — and hearing the two reprises of “Believe in Yourself” — helped her. “When I’m on the stage, listening to them singing ‘Believe in Yourself,’ I am actually thinking like, ‘Believe in yourself, Jayla. Like, you got this. You can sing this song. I know you got this.’”
It turns out that Dorothy had the power to go home all along. Her friends ask: Why does she still want to go? Dorothy answers in the show’s powerful closer “Home.” It’s a challenging song to sing — especially when you’re losing your voice. “I don’t know if you can hear, but I was losing my voice starting opening night, and my voice was completely gone yesterday. And so I was still able to sing it, but it was just not to the part that I would have liked for it to be. So tonight, I was very [like], ‘You know, use what you have to work with. You know that your voice is gone. So right now, you just need to do whatever you need to do to make the [notes] come out. It may not be as big and bold as you need it to be, but if it’s not, just kind of put that feeling into it and just kind of act your way through it.”
Supporting Dorothy (and the entire cast) was a remarkable student orchestra, led by Student Music Director, Savanah Dever. Incredibly, this is the first show she’s ever conducted! “I was previously in the last All-School musical, Mamma Mia! I played keyboards on that one, and I saw the school director,” she said. “I saw him and saw how he worked. He really just inspired me, and it made me want to do it.”
What was the process like? What were rehearsals like? How long did you get to work on this?
Dever answers, “I’d say a little less than two months. We were given the music during winter break to look over it and then came back to school on the 7th-ish. We really started rehearsing and we kind of like started in sectionals. You can’t really just start all together; you kind of had to break it up so that each individual part — whether the rhythm section, or the woodwinds, the horns — making sure those fit together. So, it was a lot of like, separate practice, and then we came together the closer we got to the show.”
Was it challenging working with the singers, making sure that you don’t overpower them and that you can be heard under them?
“Yes, that took some time. A lot of cues and a lot of reruns going over and over and over again, just to make that cue and make sure that they come in at the right spot. Make sure the horns are not too loud on this part, or you have more percussion in another…so a lot of soundchecks and balance. But I also had the actual music director, who’s over it, help me through it all. That was very helpful.”
The process was challenging for Dever, but she’s grateful she took the chance to do it. “I did not expect to do it at first; I was kind of iffy on whether I really wanted to do it. But I just took that chance and I was like, ‘You know what? I’m going to do this,’ and I did! It’s almost closing night, so I’m really proud of [it]. This is something I never would have seen myself doing.”
Her hard work paid off. On closing night, U.S. Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee (TX-18th District) joined the cast onstage, lauding their work, the musicianship and the directing by Joshua Denning. Jackson Lee (TX-18th) presented congressional recognition awards to Kinder High School for the Performing and Visual Arts Principal Dr. Priscilla Rivas, The Wiz Director Joshua Denning, and Student Musical Conductor Savanah Dever, along with a moving speech to a sold-out audience in the Denney Theater. “I will be on the front row wherever you are,” she told Dever.
Congresswoman Lee promised to acknowledge Kinder HSPVA from the senate floor this week in Washington D.C. for their contribution to the Arts. She told the crowd and cast: “We insist that the arts in America must never be extinguished. And whatever you want to do in life, in music and theatre and visual art, we’re gonna be there to support you because that’s what makes America’s story great.”
To date, The Wiz Emerald City Experience, a celebratory fundraising event hosted by the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts Black Alumni Network (BAN) has raised over $30,000 towards scholarships to support HSPVA students.
HSPVA Black Alumni Network Founder & President, and Emerald City Experience Sponsorship Co-Chair, Denise Ward (HSPVA Vocal Class of 2012) expressed, “The time and effort of our many volunteers, the contributions of our generous sponsors, and the individual donations of everyone who has contributed to our fundraising campaign will allow us to award even more scholarships to our Black students and support their artistic and educational journeys.”
To donate to HSPVA BAN’s Emerald City Experience. please visit https://givebutter.com/emeraldcityexperience. Proceeds benefit the college scholarship and summer intensive training fund for HSPVA Black student artists.