Wayne Brady and Nichelle Lewis on Striving for Excellence in ‘The Wiz’

The veteran and the newcomer each had their own fears as they joined the Broadway revival of the beloved all-Black musical.

A portrait of a man and a woman who are sitting behind a green screen, which is seen at left.
Nichelle Lewis and Wayne Brady in his dressing room at the Marquis Theater in Manhattan.Credit…Justin J Wee for The New York Times

By Salamishah Tillet for the New York Times May 27, 2024

“That show was so Black,” my 8-year-old whispered after we saw “The Wiz” on Broadway. He hadn’t made this observation last fall after seeing a performance of the show in Baltimore, during the national tour that preceded this revival. So I was curious: What had changed, and why was this iteration more culturally resonant for him than even the 1978 movie starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson or NBC’s 2015 “The Wiz Live!” special that I’d screened for him.

I suspected my son was drawn to this version’s colloquial expressions (“All I got to do is stay Black and die,” Evillene tells Dorothy), choreography (ranging from Atlanta street dancing to South African amapiano) and its casting of Wayne Brady as the Wiz, who greets the Scarecrow and the Tinman with a dap. (Brady will depart the production on June 12.)

A caped man in a top hat stands atop stairs with his arms raised. Four women are standing or lunging around him, with their arms raised.
Wayne Brady as the Wiz in the show’s Broadway revival.Credit…Richard Termine for The New York Times
A young woman in a short blue dress is standing onstage with three men, who are costumed to look like a lion, a scarecrow and a tin man.
Lewis, who is making her Broadway debut, with Kyle Ramar Freeman as a glammed up Lion and, in the background, Avery Wilson as the Scarecrow and Phillip Johnson Richardson as the Tinman.Credit…Richard Termine for The New York Times

“The Wiz,” an all-Black incarnation of “The Wizard of Oz,” premiered on Broadway in 1975 with Stephanie Mills as Dorothy. The revival’s creative team — including the director Schele Williams and the comedian Amber Ruffin, who updated the book — have said that they wanted this version to reflect the richness of Black American history and contemporary culture.

The show features a cast of newcomers, including Nichelle Lewis, whose TikTok performance of “Home” helped land her an audition for the role of Dorothy. Brady, who made his Broadway debut 20 years ago in “Chicago,” offers up a charismatic Wiz who will do (almost) anything to leave Oz and, in Wayne’s back story, return to his loved ones.

During a recent interview, Lewis and Brady shared their history with the show, how they overcame their fears of joining this production, and the beauty of staging an all-Black musical on Broadway today. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Wayne, you joined the cast after a national tour, and, Nichelle, this is your Broadway debut. How did you prepare?

NICHELLE LEWIS I’m very nervous all the time. But I think it’s a good thing. Wayne said the other day, “If you weren’t nervous, it’d probably be bad.” For me, having those nerves is humbling. I wouldn’t say that I have all of this confidence, but I feel at peace and at home.

WAYNE BRADY Jumping into a show like this was jumping into a game of double Dutch. My default Wayne will always be the 10-year-old Wayne, who is a loner, plays by himself, listens to musical theater and writes because he doesn’t fit in. So I tell myself, “Oh, I don’t know all these people, and they already like each other.” But these things are always all in our head. Then you go, “Come on now. You wouldn’t be here if you weren’t supposed to be here, and this is your thing.” Now, this is my fourth Broadway show, so my job is to be here to support my cast.

“The Wiz” is known for its iconic performances, on the stage and screen. How did your predecessors influence your performance?

LEWIS When I got the call, the first thing I did was watch this YouTube recording of Stephanie Mills doing the show. Every time she sang, it was so soulful that I could feel it through the screen. Then I watched a few clips of Diana Ross. If you watch the video of her singing “Home,” it’s as if she’s talking directly to you. So I wanted to take the genuineness and make sure I put that into this Dorothy.

BRADY As a kid, I didn’t only focus on Richard Pryor [as The Wiz], I just loved the whole thing. Later, once I started performing, I said, “Well, if it ever comes around, I want to be the Tinman or the Scarecrow.” And one time, I was even hired to be the Tinman for Des McAnuff’s [2006] production at La Jolla Playhouse, but I ended up doing another TV show instead.

Given that it is a beloved classic, how did you ensure the uniqueness of this adaptation?

LEWIS My Dorothy is 15, and even though she does have her Aunt Em, she still doesn’t feel like she has someone there for her. It’s kind of a teenager thing. It is important for Dorothy to find all of these different people on her journey who are going through similar things and trying to be comfortable in their skin. My goal was to create this person who is growing, and be able to see that those changes are in her voice, within her body, and just her being.

BRADY When Schele called me to do it, we had long talks about the Wiz. I knew this version would be different because of her and Amber’s approach to Dorothy, and the heroes, and their journey. Dorothy does not meet three older people who guide her. Instead, these characters are all similar in age, so by extension, the Wiz had to be different. Is he scamming them right off the top? Is he being genuine with how effusive he is? We had those talks because I wanted to shape this guy so he wasn’t unrepentant.

A portrait of a woman, who is wearing gold hoop earrings and a jean jacket, and a man, who is sitting below her and wearing a blue shirt.
“A big message of this production was just to spread love for yourself, no matter who you are or where you come from,” Lewis said of the production’s inclusivity.Credit…Justin J Wee for The New York Times

After seeing it on Broadway, my 8-year-old commented how culturally Black he thought your show was.

BRADY Mission accomplished! It’s beautiful that he felt that because it’s unapologetically Black. It’s funny to me that there are times when we say unapologetically Black or Black excellence, it’s triggering for some people. Some people ask, “Why can’t it just be excellent?” I dare say we’ve been more than excellent.

LEWIS I wish I had seen a show where I thought that as a kid. I never remember seeing a show and being like, “That was so Black,” and saying it in a positive way before, unfortunately. I grew up in a small town in Virginia and was often asked, “Why does your hair look like that?” That’s a very different tone from: “That’s so Black. I want to be up there, too. Look at them.” I wish that somebody would have made me feel that way.

Critics have also applauded it for how inclusive and queer this version is.

LEWIS That was a big part of Schele’s vision. In “Brand New Day,” she wanted to have all the colors for the L.G.B.T.Q. community. A big message of this production was just to spread love for yourself, no matter who you are or where you come from.

BRADY It’s definitely a vibe. This is a “Wiz” for this time, and it is so open to everybody and everything — that in and of itself makes it beautifully that queer.

What do you think the legacy of your show will be, particularly for African American musicals on Broadway?

BRADY The original “Wiz” was a definitive product of the 1970s in its glam and excess. André De Shields, who played the Wiz, said something to me on opening night. He said, “When we did the original ‘Wiz,’ it was the first time that these people had come to see all these Black faces on the stage, they tried to put us under all of this stuff. So you are lucky because you can just come onstage and be beautiful.” In André De Shields’s version, they worked with furs, leather and lights to claim a place in the world. Ours is of this time: We have this place and can just be. From the queerness onstage to the costumes, the musicality, light and bricks. I think instead of fighting to be seen, this “Wiz” is, “Oh, you see us.”

LEWIS I hope the little Black girls in the audience feel beautiful. I hope they feel they can be whoever they want and be proud of that. If I had seen this show where I see braids, I see Afros, I see all kinds of different hairstyles — I hope she will be proud of her hair and curl texture and will do whatever she wants to do. I just hope that she feels she can do whatever she wants in this world.

Folger’s ‘Metamorphoses’ Is As Good As Gold (Review)

The Folger’s “Metamorphoses” charts a fantastic voyage through myth and time, and in brilliantly engaging company.

By André Hereford for Metro Weekly on May 21, 2024

Metamorphoses – Photo: Brittany Diliberto

Life begins with a noise in the dark, a quiet rattle and hum that bursts into a joyful communal dance ended abruptly by violent separation.

From this first myth of creation, to a final heartfelt reunion, Psalmayene 24’s funny, sure-footed staging of Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses at the Folger Theatre reaps the rewards of an inspired premise and well-directed company.

Based on Ovid’s epic tales of gods and man, the play condenses the original poem’s 15 books into a compendium of fables following fated figures like King Midas, and doomed lovers Orpheus and Eurydice. Psalmayene’s production further reimagines these myths as stories set in the African diaspora, performed by an all-Black cast (a first for the Folger).

Given a modern-day milieu, rendered with notes of African art and dance, American pop culture, and witty, accessible humor, this Metamorphoses remixes myths and morality with funk, soul, and hip-hop, and doesn’t miss a beat.

More to the point, the tight, versatile ensemble doesn’t miss a beat of Zimmerman’s archetypal drama, the adventurous direction, or Tony Thomas’ lively choreography.

Metamorphoses - Photo: Brittany Diliberto

Mika Eubanks’ boldly cheeky costumes also speak volumes for the show’s array of kings, queens, nymphs, deities, and celestial beings. Jon Hudson Odom, in a blue velvet blazer and jaunty gold crown, limns a gregariously greedy Midas, who’s left with a palpable sense of heartache once his golden wish has been revealed as a curse.

Gerrad Alex Taylor is a gas as the groovy god Bacchus, the foil in the Midas fable. In looks and attitude, Bacchus serves up a disco fantasy, abetted by the wonders Rueben D. Echoles works with wig and hair design.

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Musically-gifted Orpheus evokes legends bigger than disco. Portrayed in another compelling turn by Odom, Orpheus is embodied with elements of Prince, Michael Jackson, and James Brown. But music and splendor can shift suddenly to misfortune. And, as Orpheus begs for the life of his beloved Eurydice (Billie Krishawn), Odom, for the second time in the evening, finds the heart in tragedy.

As Myrrha, cursed to pine romantically for her father King Cinyras (DeJeanette Horne), Renea S. Brown finds heart, and the delicate balance of tension and abandon, in the aptly unnerving tale of incest. Horne’s Cinyras doesn’t register the same gravitas, although the actor, as with everyone in the ensemble, has a shot to shine in multiple roles.

Taylor, for instance, follows up his amusing Bacchus with a delirious take on Erysichthon, a man who would ravage the earth or sell his own mother to satisfy his unwieldy appetite.

Yesenia Iglesias offers an ethereal Aphrodite in the shipwrecked love story of Alcyone (Renee Elizabeth Wilson) and Ceyx (Horne). And Manu Kumasi earns laughs for his determined Vertumnus, a not quite master of disguise in pursuit of nymph Pomona (Wilson).

Throughout the show, performer Miss Kitty lends mystery and a sprightly physicality to several roles, including as the silent but powerful god Hermes. As a water nymph, she ushers in a great flood with a dance, trailing her diaphanous blue fabric like waves crashing onto shore.

With such fluid ingenuity and rich imagery — persuasively assisted by William K. D’Eugenio’s lighting — the production traverses the heights of love and depths of loss. Ultimately, the mythical journey arrives at a satisfying end, shoring up the timeless pull of these immortal tales. “Let me die still loving, and so, never die.”

Metamorphoses (?????) runs through June 16 at the Folger Theatre, 201 East Capitol St. SE. Tickets are $20 to $84, with an Affinity Night performance on June 7 honoring the LGBTQ community.

Call 202-544-7077 or visit www.folger.edu.

A staging of ancient myths, inspired by the death of Tyre Nichols

Psalmayene 24 directs an all-Black cast in a revival of Mary Zimmerman’s acclaimed “Metamorphoses” at Folger Theatre.

Review by Rhoda Feng for the Washington Post May 14, 2024 at 6:14 p.m. EDT

Yesenia Iglesias, left, and Gerrad Alex Taylor in Folger Theatre’s “Metamorphoses.” (Brittany Diliberto)

Any stage adapter of Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” is faced with a quandary: What particular kinds of metamorphoses should be emphasized? The transformations become increasingly plural over the course of 250-plus Greco-Roman myths, which deal not only with the etiologies of objects in the natural world but also with gods taking the forms of animals to pursue their quarry, and mortals being transfigured by the thunderbolt of desire, turned into symbols of a god’s wrath or else petrified in the amber of their most enduring aspects. And that’s a partial list.

Tales of creation and re-creation are on voluptuous display in Mary Zimmerman’s “Metamorphoses,” which opened Sunday at Folger Theatre in Washington. Directed with ludic energy by Psalmayene 24, the “choreo-drama” never settles for a single, snowed-in sense of the title, but revels in instability and reversals. It’s also a marvelous palimpsest, revisioning Zimmerman’s Tony-winning play, which opened on Broadway more than 20 years ago and is based on a translation of Ovid’s epic by David R. Slavitt.

It opens with a striking dream ballet (or is it nightmare?), entrancingly choreographed by Tony Thomas. Figures in matching delft blue and green outfits (designed by Mika Eubanks) dance around a water nymph (Miss Kitty) who wears a horned mask with a corona of hay and a dress with the rough circumference of Saturn. They enact frieze-like tableaus that evoke the ordering of the cosmos from primordial chaos as well as something more sinister. In one, the all-Black ensemble — a first for Folger Theatre — links up arms and sways as if in a ship’s hold. In another, each bang of a drum sends a cast member to the floor, as if felled by a bullet.

Miss Kitty as a water nymph. (Brittany Diliberto)

Psalmayene 24 has said that his decision to cast the show with all-Black actors was precipitated by the police killing of Tyre Nichols. There’s a strong suggestion from the start that the world as we know it is underpinned by violence and the dispossession of Black people in particular. In her book “A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes to Belonging,” the Canadian poet Dionne Brand writes: “To live in the Black Diaspora is I think to live as a fiction — a creation of empires, and also self-creation.” Threaded through the impeccable tapestry of this production is the suggestion that metamorphosis is intrinsic to the experience of people living in the wake of the African diaspora.

After the opening section, a woman (Yesenia Iglesias) speaks the first words of the play: “Bodies, I have in mind, and how they can change to assume new shapes.” There’s much to admire about Zimmerman’s script, such as the way it elegantly deploys ring composition — a circular narrative rich with digressions — and the way it contemporizes and humanizes gods and demigods from 10 Ovidian myths (plus one by Rainer Maria Rilke).

Jon Hudson Odom as Midas. (Brittany Diliberto)

Orpheus (Jon Hudson Odom), for instance, is figured as a rock star accoutered with a hype man and groupies. Phaeton (a skulking Edwin Brown) tells his therapist (DeJeanette Horne) about his issues with his estranged dad, Apollo (also Odom). The sun god, who appears, fittingly enough, in an aerie, would rather practice his pliés and strangle French words than finish a conversation with his son.

The cast, doubling up on multiple roles, is uniformly excellent, but the preternaturally versatile Odom, who has starred in such tonally different plays as “Ain’t No Mo’” and “An Octoroon,” bears the palm. He has such a large stage presence that it practically comes with its own Zip code. His most delectable role in “Metamorphoses” is as Midas, who saunters onto the stage to the theme music of “The Apprentice”; parallels between another short-tempered, major league narcissist who behaves like the perpetual star of his own reality show draw themselves.

Renee Elizabeth Wilson as Alcyone and DeJeanette Horne as Ceyx. (Brittany Diliberto)

The props and wig designers (Deb Thomas and Rueben D. Echoles, respectively) also leave no stone unturned in connecting the mythical to the mundane. Rolling bodies of water are effectively conjured by yards of cerulean fabric wending down the aisle and by William K. D’Eugenio’s riparian lighting. Eubanks’s costumes are also fabulously revealing: Iris (Renea S. Brown) wears a pink cotton-candy wig and a rainbow-hued skirt; the deity Sleep (Gerrad Alex Taylor) dons an eye mask with nacreous lashes; and Hunger (Iglesias), who prowls her way to the stage on all fours, looks like a vagrant who woke up in a haystack. The devil is indisputably in the details in this gorgeously realized production.

Metamorphoses, through June 16 at Folger Theatre in Washington. Approximately 90 minutes with no intermission. folger.edu.

Review: S.F. Playhouse Cracks ‘The Glass Menagerie’ Open, Directed by Jeffrey Lo

Article by Lily Janiak May 9, 2024 for the SF Chronicle

Tom (Jomar Tagatac), Jim (William Thomas Hodgson) and Amanda (Susi Damilano) toast in San Francisco Playhouse’s “The Glass Menagerie.” Photo: Jessica Palopoli/San Francisco Playhouse

Crack open “The Glass Menagerie,” and you might find a dreamscape inside. At San Francisco Playhouse, Tennessee Williams’ 1944 masterpiece is like a series of nested worlds with the tops broken off. 

A cramped, bare-bones apartment rises like a tiny island center stage. When our narrator Tom Wingfield (Jomar Tagatac) jumps off it onto the stage floor, it’s like he’s plunging into the cold of the subconscious’ ocean. Hovering above is the cursive neon sign across the alley from his apartment, itself encased by a giant gold frame — perhaps it’s the movie house proscenium to which Tom always runs off. But Christopher Fitzer’s beguiling scenic design unfolds into yet another layer: the unadorned walls of the theater’s backstage. Actors wait on the playing space’s fringes when they’re not in scenes; any real escape — from the Wingfields’ poverty, from their obligations and history, from each other’s infuriating personalities — is impossible.

Amanda (Susi Damilano) worries about her children in San Francisco Playhouse’s “The Glass Menagerie.” Photo: Jessica Palopoli/San Francisco Playhouse

Auteurs splash paint on Shakespeare all the time. Now, in a production that opened Wednesday, May 8, director Jeffrey Lo reveals Williams as a canvas that’s just as wide and ripe. Even if his brushstrokes don’t always jell, it thrills to reimagine a text familiar from high school syllabi as a place where anything can happen.

In the memory play that gave rise to the genre, Tom is aching for adventure and poetry, his sister Laura (Nicole Javier) wants to hide her limp from the world, and their mother Amanda (Susi Damilano) doesn’t understand why her kids can’t conform to the narrow paths she has laid out for them. If she could chew their food properly for them, she would. 

Laura (Nicole Javier) is unsure about her future in San Francisco Playhouse’s “The Glass Menagerie.” Photo: Jessica Palopoli/San Francisco Playhouse

When they can’t take it any more, lights by Wen-Ling Liao might abruptly turn yellow, as if characters can no longer see straight. Or the static of Laura’s beloved victrola might crescendo till it singes to a crisp. But other sound choices by designer James Ard are not so felicitous; one sequence so evokes a chase in a contemporary action movie that you half-expect Jason Bourne to burst onstage. 

A forced quality pops up elsewhere. Tom keeps scribbling in a notebook, ripping off pages and thrusting them toward others who ignore the offers — all as if the production itself didn’t know what to make of the choice. 

Amanda (Susi Damilano, left), Laura (Nicole Javier) and Tom (Jomar Tagatac) have a disagreement in San Francisco Playhouse’s “The Glass Menagerie.” Photo: Jessica Palopoli/San Francisco Playhouse

Still, individual moments sing. Tagatac has the power to take the whole world’s grief on his shoulders and mourn it for you. When Damilano’s Amanda tries to get him to sit up straight, it’s as if she fancies herself a sculptor who could mold his pecs to his shoulder if she wanted.

When Jim (William Thomas Hodgson) gives the family a brief reason to hope as a “gentleman caller” for Laura, you might appreciate anew how his social graciousness isn’t a skill but a soul-deep generosity. Each time she says something awkward — revealing, for instance, that she attributes consciousness to the glass figurines she treasures as pets — he indulges her with a “yes, and” prompt. But then, when he accidentally breaks one of them, she’s able to come out of her shell and return the gift — to find something to say that makes the situation right, in a line that Javier makes as devastating as anything you’ll ever hear on a stage: “Glass breaks so easily.”

Jim (William Thomas Hodgson, left) kisses Laura (Nicole Javier) in San Francisco Playhouse’s “The Glass Menagerie.” Photo: Jessica Palopoli/San Francisco Playhouse

If sometimes the momentum in this production proves just as fragile, such scenes supply ample compensation. Watch as Javier’s Laura gets kissed, her expression unclouding for the first time — like she’s just breathed fresh air, tasted clean water, after a life of soot and grime.

More Information

3 stars

“The Glass Menagerie”: Written by Tennessee Williams. Directed by Jeffrey Lo. Through June 15. Two hours, 45 minutes. $30-$125. San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., S.F. 415-677-9596. www.sfplayhouse.org 

The Body’s Midnight: New Spring Play by Tira Palmquist Opens at Boston Court this April

By Hayden Dobb, Pasadena Weekly Staff Writer Apr 4, 2024

    The Body’s Midnight: New spring play opens at Boston Court this April
    “The Body’s Midnight” cast. (Makela Yepez/Submitted)

    A new play is coming to Boston Court this spring. “The Body’s Midnight,” written by playwright Tira Palmquist, is a co-production with IAMA Theatre Company. Directed by Jessica Kubzansky, “The Body’s Midnight” explores the idea of what it means to get lost in America — characters Anne and David are set to search for this meaning while they embark on their version of the perfect American road trip. With them is a map, a long list of sights to see and an itinerary that is planned to land them in St. Paul just in time for the birth of their first grandchild. Soon, however, their tidy plans are disrupted by a troubling diagnosis and the breathtaking, fleeting world around them. As the two are skewed from their initial path, they are met with an unavoidably messy and bewildering journey of their lives.

    “It’s beautiful and it’s incredibly funny,” Kubzansky said. “It’s a play about a rite of passage in some ways. It’s a play about different relationships regarding husbands and wives or parents and children. It covers the beautiful impermanence of our lives and the choices that we start to make when something in us feels threatened. I think everyone can relate to this, especially through what we all experienced with the pandemic — it’s really a play about what happens when something disrupts and limits your life.”

    The cast that will be acting out this grand story is Keliher Walsh, playing Anne; Jonathan Nichols-Navarro, playing David; Sonal Shah as Katie; and Ryan Garcia as Wolf. Before these characters were conceptualized, an acting friend of Palmquist noted that at the peak of her talent in her career, it was becoming harder for her to find roles in theater due to the lack of middle-aged and older women in plays.

    “I accepted the challenge, and know that there are things I’m really interested in as a playwright — one of those is the stories I choose to tell. I want to be mindful of the stories and represent all ages in theater, and to mostly represent women without the ties to being a mother or caregiver, showing that side of womanhood is important to me,” Palmquist said.

    Another aspect to “The Body’s Midnight” is Palmquist’s nod to the good, stable marriage that is showcased in the play, juxtaposing broken relationships that are usually told in the industry.

    From her home state of Minnesota, Palmquist also finds joy in writing stories involving the state, along with highlighting the sense of adventure shared throughout the country.

    “This intensely theatrical and wondrously strange piece leans into the visually arresting and textually rich — it’s what IAMA Theater Company and Boston Court values in new playwriting. ‘The Body’s Midnight’ shows the best and worst parts of a road trip experience, and the most interesting characters are met along the way. It’s a great performance on how vast and odd it can all be,” Kubzansky added.

    If Palmquist had to sum up “The Body’s Midnight” in three words, they would be “discovery, bravery, legacy.”

    Palmquist is known for her writing that merges the poetic, personal and political. Her most produced play, “Two Degrees,” was produced by places like the Tesseract Theater in St. Louis and Prime Productions at the Guthrie, after its premier at the Denver Center. As an established playwright, her work “The Way North” was a finalist for the O’Neill, an Honorable Mention for the 2019 Kilroys List and was featured in the 2019 Ashland New Plays Festival.

    Tickets for the preview shows from April 18 to April 26 cost between $19 to $39 as the play is honed, and tickets through opening night to the play’s close from April 27 to May 26 cost between $24 to $59. Please view the Boston Court website for ticket price details.

    With special events surrounding specific showings of “The Body’s Midnight,” guests can expect pre- and post-show illuminations following themes of the play or examining closely at how the play came to be. Special events include an art reception, playwriting conversations with Palmquist, ASL interpreted performances, Mother’s Day celebrations and more.

    For more information on show details, ticket prices and before and after show events, visit bostoncourtpasadena.org.

    “The Body’s Midnight”
    WHEN: April 18 to May 26
    WHERE: Boston Court Pasadena, 70 N. Mentor Avenue, Pasadena
    COST: Tickets start at $19
    INFO: bostoncourtpasadena.org