By: Shanda Pierce
Growing up in the suburbs as a Black theatre kid, I didn’t see enough representation that mirrored faces like mine. As a child, I fell in love with the movie version of The Wiz only to discover the Original Broadway Cast a few years later—I know, I’m a millennial, what can I say—I was definitely late to the party. Either way, whatever version you were introduced to first, The Wiz has continued to be a staple in millions of households across Black America since the 70’s.
But what’s the secret sauce that makes The Wiz so enchanting? Is it the show-stopping vocals, the dazzling costumes, and magical choreography? Maybe it’s the set design, creative make-up choices or the story in general. Sure, it’s all of those things, but it’s so much more than that.
My personal take is that when you give an all-Black cast the opportunity to shine, rest assured, they’re going to outdo anyone and everything. They’re not only going to shine—oh, they’re going to radiate excellence. They’ll mesmerize you by making the room feel warm and inviting like a big ol’ family reunion—with a bunch of really really outrageously multi-talented triple threats. And at the very least, they’re going to, “Give ‘em a show or stay the eff home.”
The “em” is the nearly sold-out audiences across the country, and the quote is from our new friend Avery Wilson, who is playing the role of the Scarecrow. He told us that this mantra is written on his mirror and before every show, he reminds his castmates. I’ve never heard truer words be spoken.
But let me rewind a bit. Picture this: Avery, the guy with a voice that could charm anyone, started singing relatively late and honestly, I couldn’t believe it! No, Avery didn’t dive into singing until he was around eight or nine. Raised in a church environment and inspired by legendary voices like James Moore, Kim Burrell and the Clark Sisters, he was surrounded by gospel greatness. But it wasn’t until his dad heard him belt it out at home that he redirected Avery’s path toward music—cue the Joe Jackson vibes (his words, not mine LOL). Now we can’t forget his stint in football too. He says he tried it out, but after he got hit, he hung up his cleats. “…I said, we’ll take a rain check on football, haha” he laughed. Same here Avery, same.
An alumni of Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School, a performing arts High School in Connecticut, this man’s got skills beyond the stage. He’s danced, he’s run track, and he even had a stint on The Voice when he was just sixteen years old! He credits the show as being one of the greatest experiences of his younger life, even though to us he’s still young ;). He also had to remind us that not one, but all four chairs turned around, but in the end, he decided to join Cee-lo’s team. Although he didn’t win, he gained a gained a newfound respect for the hard work behind the spotlight.
He was not only grateful to learn the ropes of the industry at a young age, but he was appreciative that it allowed him to connect with so many people across the world—some who he’d never even met.
And then, years later, there was Babyface’s NPR Tiny Desk special, which according to Avery, Babyface himself personally dialed him. The life changing moment was unexpected and showed Avery just how much his gifts would make room for him. He humbly laughed and casually mentioned that he was a part of the resurgence of Tevin Campbell’s classic song “Can We Talk”, which led to Babyface, the writer of the song, calling him. If you ask me, I’m 1000% sure Avery won the viral challenge—and I stand on business with that, but I digress. Avery says that when Babyface called him, he said, “I think you’re one of the greatest voices of this generation and I want you to do this song.” Okay, slight flex! But overall, Avery couldn’t stress enough that he was just so grateful for legends like Babyface to see him, hear him and know him.
But wait, can we talk (no pun intended) about The Wiz now?? Avery is reviving the iconic Scarecrow, infusing his essence into a role that’s been loved since Hinton Battle first took to the Broadway stage. Avery delved deep in the process, studying Hinton’s inflections and vocal agility and doing the same Michael Jackson’s portrayal of the Scarecrow in the movie version of The Wiz. He’s not just reimagining the role, but he’s adding his own flavor and spice while honoring the core of the character. And you know he’s serious because his audition process lasted for months in between callbacks, readings and finally hearing that he got the role.
Digging deeper into his new approach, Avery unravels what he views the layers of the Scarecrow’s journey to be. He believes that the Scarecrow there’s a confidence in his brainlessness, because even when you don’t know everything, you’re still confident in what you do know. Avery says, “Even if you feel like you don’t have the looks or brains, or that you don’t have everything ironed out in your plans—you still believe in something. And that little thing could be the voice inside that tells you, that you’re great.”
Throughout the process, Avery continued to remind himself that no matter where you are in your life, what you feel like you’re troubled with, or if you’re trying to find what you think you’ve lost, as long as you believe in your purpose, there’s no way you can’t prevail.
“A lot of people go through life looking for the answers and they start to look outward so much, that they go to a friend for a situation or they go to a family member. They go to these different people, instead of going inward to themself.” He says.
This new rendition of The Wiz is not just a rehash; it’s a comedic fresh take, courtesy of writer Amber Ruffin, and director Schele Williams, both of whom Avery praises. The 2023 production is a reminder that within our own narratives lies immense power. It celebrates embracing imperfections, and discovering that sometimes, the answers lie within. It’s a journey that reflects life’s struggles, self-discovery, purpose and the power of introspection. It’s about Black joy, finding your way back, and realizing that home is more than a place; it’s also a state of mind.
But what truly elevates this production is the camaraderie and innate connection amongst the cast. Avery tells us that they’re not just cast mates but they’re family—a word that one can’t always use when working in this business. He says that one of the most beautiful things about being a part of an all-Black cast is the unspoken understanding and cultural connection that doesn’t need any translation. The supportive cast has the freedom to be themselves, laugh it up or—have a kiki, so effortlessly. From inside jokes, to reading body language, to even if when someone falters on stage, they seamlessly cover for each other, always having the other’s back.
Avery told us that the support extends beyond the walls of the production too. When the cast was in Baltimore about to open and freeze the show, he came back to their hotel lobby, and there were tons of posters everywhere, helping to promote his new single, “Kiss the Sky”. They also had chocolate chip cookies—knowing that those are his favorite. Ain’t that sweet?!
Being a part of this show isn’t just about breaking barriers— it’s about shattering limitations, and aside from his mirror mantra of, “Give ‘em a show or stay the eff home,” he also has another mantra that we at The Chocolate Voice are also going to adopt.
“I am limitless. There is nothing that I cannot have and nothing that I cannot do. As long as I keep it in my mind that I am limitless. I remind myself of this every day because I want to get to the point where there is nothing that fear can step in and take away from me.”
Avery tells us that he hopes it’s a message to every Black child in that audience—you are limitless. Your story is worth telling, and your dreams are within reach.
For us, this new production of The Wiz promotes accurate and intentional representation. For Avery, he’s hopeful that little Black girls and boys will see themselves in these characters and feel empowered. It’s also about the world understanding that there’s no cap on what anyone can achieve and allowing the audience to embrace the jubilant, often unseen, beauty of unbridled Black joy onstage—something that Broadway hasn’t seen in a long time.
So, if you’re in San Diego from January 9th to January 14th, do yourself a favor: catch Avery and the remarkable cast of The Wiz at the San Diego Civic Center. And mark my words, when it hits Broadway later this year, it’s going to be a show you won’t want to miss!
Because in the end, The Wiz isn’t just a musical—it’s a testament to Black excellence, a celebration of limitless potential, and a reminder that the power to find your way home resides within you.
Interviewed by The Chocolate Voice, Gwen Pierce and Shanda Pierce
Written By: Shanda Pierce
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