When the CAST board of directors decided to put on “The Wiz” this season, it was a deliberate attempt to attract more local African-American actors to participate in the community theater.
“The arts are essential to this community. Look at the Knox Concert Series, CAST, all the different performing groups. But we have not been able to engage what is now the majority population of Anniston,” said CAST president Howard Johnson. “We have 90 kids now in our CAST Kidz company. Maybe three are African-American. That’s not right.”
“The Wiz” is a big step forward. Every single speaking part was cast with a local African-American actor, from a tiny field mouse to the great and powerful Oz himself.
“The Wiz,” a 1970s urban reimagining of “The Wizard of Oz,” will be performed Thursday-April 15 at the Oxford Performing Arts Center.
CAST reached out to other new community members as well. This is not an all-black cast. Students from two local dance studios, Crazy About Dance in Alexandria and Studio C in Anniston, will perform as winged monkeys and the tornado. The citizens of Oz include some current and former members of the JSU Marching Southerners color guard. “We wanted to tap into some talent and energy that otherwise doesn’t realize we’re here,” said director Brian Rothwell.
After a rousingly fun rehearsal of “The Wiz” last week, five of the principal actors sat down with The Anniston Star for a discussion that ranged from African-Americans in theater, to arts in education, to John Legend as Black Jesus.
Eranika Bonds (Dorothy): A military kid, Bonds is originally from Sumter, S.C., now a resident of Saks. Everywhere her family moved, she acted. Her first play for CAST was “The Miracle Worker,” which she did with her daughter. “Theater is my life,” she said. “But I have a degree in social work.”
Levi “Keem” Thompson (Scarecrow): Thompson, a native of South Carolina and a graduate of Anniston High School, has performed in a handful of plays at church, but this is his first theater production. He wanted to try out for “The Wiz” because it’s an historic play. “My mom used to watch this all the time,” he said.
Stephonn Ammons (Cowardly Lion): A native of Anniston, Ammons has been performing with area community theaters for 13 years. “When I first started, I used to be among the very few African-Americans in the cast — if not the only African-American in the cast.” He has a degree in musical theater from the University of Montevallo. In February 2019, he will direct “A Raisin in the Sun” for CAST, as the theater continues its outreach to the local African-American community.
Taylor Finch (Good Witch of the North): Finch is majoring in theater at Jacksonville State University and plans to teach theater once she gets her masters in education. Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, her family moved to Wetumpka in 2009. She has been doing theater for 18 years, including touring with Bright Star Touring Theatre of North Carolina, which emphasizes educational outreach, including plays about black history.
Jason Wright (Tin Man): Wright’s family moved from Decatur to Anniston when he was 10 years old, and he’s been doing theater since he got here. He has a bachelor’s degree and two master’s degrees from JSU in visual arts. He is the fine arts teacher at Piedmont High School, where he is currently directing a cast of 70 students in “The Lion King Jr.” Wright lives in Jacksonville, and his home was damaged during the March 19 tornado. “The tornado is supposed to hit Dorothy’s house, but it didn’t,” he said. “It hit the Tin Man’s house.”
What follows are the highlights of the conversation:
Jason: I have always loved “The Wizard of Oz.” When I first moved here, I used to check out “The Oz Scrapbook” from the public library. I know the lady at the library used to get mad at me because I would check it out all the time and never bring it back. When I was young, my parents introduced me to the movie of “The Wiz.” Ever since I saw the Emerald City sequence from that movie, I have been in love with this show. Partly because of the music, but also because as a young African-American, it was an important thing for me to see black people in this different light. A lot of times, we African-Americans, we have to work. It’s not about frivolity. But art is an important part of our lives. To be able to see us in a different light, in this fantasy world, was an important thing for me that I didn’t realize until much, much later. “The Wiz” was a stepping stone, probably for all of us.
Taylor: In Cleveland, there was a lot of opportunity to do shows with African-Americans, but when I came down to Alabama … I went to high school in Wetumpka. There’s not that many black people, so you never really saw a reflection of yourself in that area. You’d have to go to Montgomery in order to see people that look like you doing stories that you can relate to.
The first show I did with CAST was “Hairspray” (in 2016). When I found out CAST was doing “The Wiz,” I thought, “Great! I can do another play where you can see black people in a very strong and empowering and happy light" — as opposed to “Porgy and Bess,” which is all about suffering.
Eranika: This will be something that’s going to open up some eyes. I don’t think anyone’s ever seen anything like this before — not in Anniston.
Levi: The first play I saw was “The Wizard of Oz” — but it wasn’t the original. It was a gospel-type play by KidsFest. I’d seen “The Wizard of Oz” and I’d seen “The Wiz,” but to see a version that points kids toward Christ — that was amazing.
Taylor: “The Wiz” is vastly different from “The Wizard of Oz” in a lot of ways. In essence, when this show first premiered, it was doing it for the culture, so we could have this platform where we are seen the way we are. I don’t like to call it “The Black Wizard of Oz” because it’s so much more than that.
Jason: It resonates. People know what it’s like to be displaced from a place that you love. You know what it’s like to be somewhere that’s strange. That’s something that everybody — black, white, Asian, who cares — feels. We can tell stories that everybody can relate to. You’re you, I’m me, we’re human, we’re different, but we have things that are the same.
Levi: Honestly, I came with that mindset of, “Let’s do it for the culture.” But it became way more than that. I’m having so much fun, I forgot why I even started doing this. I’ve grown a lot. Me, I love singing, but I never had the real confidence. You know how you pretend you have confidence? But being here, you don’t have a choice but to have confidence. I can’t just keep getting by. I have to actually grow in myself.
Jason: I think community theaters — CAST, CharACTers in Gadsden, Theater of Gadsden and several schools — now are really instrumental in making sure students are being exposed to the wonder and the power of the performing arts.
Stephonn: When I went to Anniston High School, we did not have a theater program. All I had before I went off to college was CAST. No matter where I go, I’m always thinking about trying to rescue the people like me who wanted an outlet and did not have an outlet. And I want them to have it at their school, not just their community theater. Who knows where I would have been if I’d been getting all these things as part of my education, not as a volunteer?
Jason: People think it has to take a lot of money. Theater does not have to take a lot of money. If you have a space and you have people, you can have theater. We once made an entire set out of foam. Borrowed foam. We didn’t have a cent. I borrowed costumes from friends.
Taylor: I went to a high school that previously had a huge theater department, and people just kind of let it go by the wayside. And we essentially restarted the program from scratch. We went to everybody’s grandmothers and aunts and anybody who would help us. Thankfully, we had a pretty strong community theater in the area. At the end of the day, it wasn’t about the things that we were given. It was about the people who were involved in it. That’s what theater is about — cultivating a community, a talent, a love for it. It’s not about the flashy things that come with it.
Eranika: It’s a family. My dad was military, and everywhere we went, I did shows. I’m still close to those people to this day. Especially CAST — this is my family.
Stephonn: I just want people to respect the craft of theater. Theater isn’t always just people running around in makeup and playing pretend. It’s very introspective. I want more new people to come to the theater and to audition with us, but I want them to know that this is no game. This is really a commitment. You have to be willing to give of yourself.
Levi: I have to step up my game when I see y’all.
Taylor: Theater is not for the faint of heart.
Jason: We’ve had a lot of weird obstacles during this play. Healthwise, family-wise, all kinds of things.
Taylor: Natural disasters.
Jason: The. Show. Must. Go. On.
Levi: The main question I’ve been asking myself since I started is, “How do we get other people to know about this?” The fact that it’s been going on in the community and I’ve been here for years and I’m just now knowing about it — who else doesn’t know about it who would want to be a part of this?
Taylor: It comes down to two things. One: recruitment. Two: doing more shows where we feel like we can have a presence. A lot of times with the shows that are picked for community theaters, we feel like there’s no possible way we could get a lead role, or a role that we could even honestly relate to.
Stephonn: I also want people to learn that with casting, sometimes anything goes. Maybe a black person wouldn’t have played that role in the past, but go ahead and put them up there anyway.
Eranika: We did “The Foreigner” in my high school. I was Betty Meeks.
Taylor: We did “Kiss Me, Kate” at JSU and pretty much all of the lead roles were interracial couples.
Jason: I was an Irish Ben Weatherstaff in “The Secret Garden.”
Eranika: It takes a lot of imagination, and if somebody can see you doing something like that, it opens your mind and expands it.
Jason: NBC just did “Jesus Christ Superstar,” and John Legend played Jesus.
Taylor: JSU did “Guys and Dolls,” and all of the lead roles were black women.
Jason: And I think we ought to make art of our own. We don’t have to continue just doing things that have been done. We are artists in our own right. And we can make a new world, and we can make new things that include everybody.
Lisa Davis is Features Editor of The Anniston Star. Contact her at 256-235-3555 or firstname.lastname@example.org.