Two of the Twin Cities best-known theater companies pull back the curtain this week on their first-ever collaboration — "The Wiz," a reimagining of "The Wizard of Oz" steeped in African-American culture
The benefits of Children's Theatre Co. and Penumbra Theatre joining together are clear: Children's get Penumbra's expertise in African-American culture and expression, and Penumbra gets Children's sizable resources and access to a young audience.
Maybe the only question is why it took so long for the companies to come together.
"If you look throughout history, and even recent history, there are several attempts to partner between predominantly white institutions and theaters of color that haven't gone well because often times the budget sizes are so different, but also the cultural capital that the theaters of color brings to the table isn't appropriately or adequately recognized," said Sarah Bellamy, Penumbra's artistic director.
Bellamy called "The Wiz" a thoughtful attempt at creating an equitable model and not simply a partnership between artistic directors.
"The Wiz" first came to life on Broadway in 1974. It won seven Tony awards and was one of the first big-budget musical hits featuring an all-black cast. A movie version in 1978 starred Diana Ross and Michael Jackson. While inspired by L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz, Bellamy says that Dorothy's story has a resonance for the black community.
Peter Brosius, artistic director at Children's Theatre, said the union with Penumbra has been in the works for years.
"What's been exciting is Penumbra is a national leader in creating extraordinary theater that deals with the African-American experience," he said. "Working with extraordinary artists, and so the idea of partnering with them and having with their wisdom and insights just seemed fantastic."
Bellamy says that Dorothy's story has a resonance for the black community.
"Sometimes it can feel like you're navigating a world where you don't understand all of the rules or that things change right in front of you when you thought you understood them," she said. "But we keep continuing to have hope, and we keep imagining a better future and I think ultimately what we find is that we have everything inside us that we need, we don't need to look outside ourselves to be affirmed."
Penumbra Theater founder Lou Bellamy, Sarah Bellamy's father, is directing "The Wiz." In this production, he said, Dorothy's journey embodies an important cultural moment: The Great Migration, when blacks, after Reconstruction, left the rural South and moved to urban cities.
"Dorothy starts out in Kansas, but it's a black town in Kansas called Nicodemus that really exists," he said. "So she starts out there, is taken by the tornado and dropped in Coney Island. "
Dorothy finds the Scarecrow in a community garden... the lion in Central Park Zoo. The Emerald City is Harlem. The Wizard's Palace is the famous Harlem theater, The Apollo. The Yellow Brick Road is not a set piece, but people: three dancers who guide Dorothy and her friends from one place to the next.
"Making the music, the pulsing, the bodies be the thing that lead you to the next place is very, very African," Lou Bellamy said.
The cast of "The Wiz" features some of the best talent in the Twin Cities, including American Idol finalist Paris Bennett in the role of Dorothy.
Both CTC's Peter Brosius and Penumbra's Sarah Bellamy agree they've put a lot of work into this new relationship, and they're already looking forward to working together on the next project.