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Hiya yall! Your girl Starr is back and well rested after ending the year with a holiday vacation. I hope your new year is starting off gentle for y’all as well.
I’m kicking off my first newsletter of 2023 with a stable of Black creativity. Back in December, it was announced that the Tony-award winning musical “The Wiz” is coming back to the stage, and will be touring across America this fall before hitting Broadway in 2024. The tour will launch in Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theatre, where the musical debuted back in 1974.
“The Wiz” is more than just a Black remix of L. Frank Baum’s “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” For many Black theater goers, it was the first time they saw and heard themselves. It featured an all-Black cast. Some of them, like actresses Stephanie Mills (who starred as Dorothy in the play) and Phylicia Rashad, were getting their first tastes of stardom. Its award-winning musical score is loaded with funky and soulful bangers. The 1978 film rendition of the play featured legendary Black icons: Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Lena Horne and Richard Pryor. Black dancers flooded the stage as they expressed a tale of Black liberation through their choreography.
This explosion of Black storytelling was a bold move during a time when Black narratives weren’t centered in mainstream arts culture. The play’s yellow brick road almost didn’t make it to Broadway. And the movie flopped at the box office because it didn’t earn what the movie cost to make. Despite those stumbles, “The Wiz” continues to have a multi-generational influence on Black culture. It’s how Michael Jackson, who played the scarecrow in the film, met Qunicy Jones before MJ rose as the King of Pop later in his career. It’s the film that makes many Black families gather, laugh and smile together. The musical has continuously been a rite-of-passage of many Black creatives who want to make their mark in theater.
With all this praise, I am hesitant to admit that I didn’t watch “The Wiz” until last May. It was one of the most uplifting movies I have ever watched. I deeply related to Dorthy’s journey from a shy, and timid to empowered and inspired to finally start believing in herself. She didn’t do the journey alone. She befriended other “outcasts’' who helped free themselves and others from the many aspects of anti-Blackness. I got chills during the scene for the song “Brand New Day,” when those enslaved by the wicked witch Evillene peeled off their capitalistic costumes to reveal beautiful, Black free bodies. “The Wiz’' is full of affirmations. One of my favorites: “Don’t you carry nothing that might be a load/Come on, ease on down, ease on down, down the road!”
About a month after watching the film, I got word that Black Joy would expand into a nationwide brand and that I would get a team to help me bring y’all daily doses of Black magic ✨. So I may be late in the musical game (lol), but “The Wiz” aligned with what I needed at that time.
I wanted y’all to experience a newsletter celebrating the dopeness of a Black classic, especially since Thursday was the 48th anniversary of the musical’s premier on Broadway. So share this newsletter with your friends and fam so we can ease on down the road together.
‘Eaze’ on down the road of music with Ronny Cash
As the son of a church music director, Arizona artist Ronny Jones was destined to create a call-and-response relationship with music.
Ronny observed his dad guiding the congregation on a spiritual journey through the piano and gospel music every Sunday. Ronny followed his father’s lead by playing around with the drums at age two and keyboard at age 7. And just like that, he found his space in the music world just like the rest of his family. His mother would sing behind multiple artist. He said his sister, Kayla, has a superstar voice that showed out in the youth choir from time to time.
Going by the stage name Ronny Cash, the 26-year-old musician often invites his fam into the studio. His dad in Ronny’s band during his live performances. Check out this cute banger he created with his then five-year-old brother Noah called “Goose Like a Moose.” Like “The Wiz,” Ronny’s music is inspired by multiple genres, like R&B, soul, hip hop and gospel. He calls his musical vibe as alternative soul.
Music is more than entertainment for the Jones family. It’s a love language. Ronny said it’s natural for them to create random songs as they hang out and chill with each other.
“It’s like breathing at this point as far as music goes in this family. We’re all musically very tapped in,” Rony said. “You know how some people are bilingual or have multiple languages under their belt so they’re able to communicate with their family in different ways. I think music is basically the same thing, but through song. It’s like having somebody who really understands you. It’s a lot of joy.”
“The Wiz” became a classic in the Jones’ household ever since Ronny’s mother introduced the family to the film. Ronny’s mom and uncle acted out the scenes together when they were children. That pastime passed down to their children who each claimed their favorite character. Kayla was Dorthy, Ronny’s older brother, Zave, played the Lion, his older sister Kiosha claimed the Tin Man, and, as a big fan of Michael Jackson, Ronny just had to have the role of the Scarecrow.
So when a family friend/ Instagram influencer motivated Ronny and his other musically talented family members to do a 12-day content creation challenge to boost audience engagement, Ronny grabbed his vinyl copy of “The Wiz’s” soundtrack and got to work creating his “12 Days Down the Yellow Brick Road” series, which you can listen to on SoundCloud, as well as TikTok, Instagram and Twitter.
“I think what got ‘The Wiz’ to be such a special part of the Black community is it gathered so many different creatives and made something that’s already monumental by saying, ‘Let’s make it Blacker and low-key better.’”
It was hard to pick only 12 songs from a musical loaded with bops. Ronny chatted with me about the process behind three of the remixes he produced and what stirred his inspiration for each song.
- “The Wizzzaaard!” (Remix of “He’s the Wizard”): “It was giving a good intro to the 12 days. It introduced the different sound I was making. I’m very visual. So I could still see (the munchkins) dancing to my song in my head. So that just indicated that this was bound to be the first song. I wanted to give a feeling of spectacle, excitement, joy and adventure because the song is prepping you for this journey not only for the next 12 days, but as far as the story goes, it’s also prepping Dorothy. Like, ‘Ay! You gotta go see the Wiz!’”
- “Poppy Girlz” (Remix of “Poppy Girls”): “Honestly, I wasn’t going to do this song at first. I remember sitting with my mom and we’re playing the soundtrack. We were smoking a joint and she’s like, ‘What you gonna do today?’ And she turns that song on. As soon as the song starts, I start singing, ‘She’s a poppy girl.’ And started freestyling it. I was like, ‘Oh, I kind of felt that in my bones. I know what I’m doing today.’ And so I called my sister up, and I was like, ‘Hey, I got an idea, but to really execute it, I need you.’ And she was doing her own 12 days of singing. She was doing different Beyonce songs. So I knew she had something to do. But she was like, ‘You got the idea. Let me know when you need me to come through.’ She came through and we killed it.”
- “If I Could Feel” (Remix of “What Would I Do If I Could Feel”): “I didn’t expect this one to be so emotional for me. This song is already an emotional song. In the movie, Tin Man was talking about what he could do if he could feel, but he was feeling throughout the whole movie. He had emotions the whole time. So while I was singing it and translating those words into these new words, I didn’t know that I was also grabbing those feelings and really internalizing them to get them out naturally. I felt like I could cry after that recording…We are kind of conditioned to hide ourselves so we can so we can survive. This song really brought it back to me because, as a kid, when you’re labeled a crybaby you stop crying because you don’t want to be labeled a crybaby no more. So you kind of callous yourself so you don’t have that stigma put on you. But by doing that, you have to teach yourself how to feel again once you become an adult. It’s okay to cry when you need to.”
The road is made of gold
Bringing back another oldie-but-goodie with my chat with Devin Franklin, a theater junkie from Birmingham, Ala., who I interviewed for my “Young, Southern and Black” series along with David Parker in 2020. Back then, Devin was about a year away from completing their undergrad in musical theater at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Now they’re pushin’ through the first year of grad school at Ohio University for a Masters of Fine Arts in Directing.
“The Wiz” set the tone for Devin’s arts career after performing the play in high school. So I knew I had to grab them to share the excitement about the news of “The Wiz’s” Broadway revival and to chat about the portrayal of Black, queer life on stage and film.
Starr: How do you feel about “The Wiz” and it coming back?
Devin: I squealed when I saw the announcement. “The Wiz” was the first show I did in high school where I was like, “Oh, this is for me.” It was the first time I was part of a show that was a majority-Black cast. I just hold a lot of very special memories with that show. So when I saw something that practically changed what I thought was possible for theater being revived on Broadway, I just couldn’t contain myself. And on top of that, it’s been choreographed by JaQuel Knight, who we all know is like the iconic choreographer for Beyoncé. I know every and all things to know about Beyonce Giselle Knowles-Carter. So when I saw that connection, I was like, “Oh, so on top of it getting revived, the dances are about to be next level.”
Starr: Did you watch “The Wiz” before your performance in high school?
Devin: I knew of “The Wiz,” but I had never watched the film until after I was done with that show. And when I tell you Diana Ross belting “Home” at the end of that movie changed my brain chemistry. To me, it’s one of the most iconic film moments of all time. The magic of it to me was the simplicity of the performance. It’s not a perfect vocal performance. Her voice cracks. It gets a little wonky at times. But it’s so honest. That desire to be with people who you know love you and to be rooted in that community is a universal experience. And especially to be seeing a Black American woman knowing the history of this country singing about home, which is something we specifically had to create because we were taken away from what we’ve known as home because of the transatlantic slave trade. So home to Black people means significantly more than the average person might think. With all of those things combined, that’s what makes “Home” one of my top five performances ever.
Starr: During our last conversation in 2020, you brought attention to how Black, queer creatives are leading a renaissance that challenges stereotypes portrayed in theater. Has that viewpoint changed for you at all since then? How do you currently feel about the portrayal of Black, queer life on stage and in film?
Devin: Specifically speaking on Broadway, I mean, it’s called the ‘Great White Way’ for a reason. There’s definitely strides that have been made towards a more diverse, more inclusive Broadway, but “For Colored Girls” was on Broadway last year and it had limited engagement. Then “Ain’t No Mo’” literally had to get crowdfunding to stay on Broadway for more time.
It’s like a double-edged sword. I’m thankful for seeing more Black playwrights and directors in more powerful positions, but it’s really telling when the Broadway audience isn’t coming out to support Black shows and Black art. I want to say I’m optimistic. James Baldwin said, “You can’t tell the children there’s no hope.” I definitely think progress is being made, but I don’t think we can depend on white people specially to get us there.
Starr: What is the legacy you want to create in the arts?
Devin: The kind of art I’m striving to make shows marginalized groups in general in a multifaceted life, especially Black folk, and even more specifically, Black American people. I feel like that’s a very overlooked demographic in terms of stories that are told. Automatically I started thinking of Black playwrights who are centering the Black American experience. I want to continue that tradition and that legacy of bringing dignity to blackness in the theater. I don’t want to be portraying Black people as strictly sinners or strictly saints. We are a multitude of things. I want to get into the mess of what Blackness is.
Celebrate your Blackness by spreading the Black joy today and everyday! See ya’ next time!