“The Wiz” opens at Off-Broadway Theater
The musical centers Black joy and will run from Feb. 23 to Feb. 25 at the Off Broadway Theater.
Courtesy of Zara Belo
The idea to direct a production of “The Wiz” came to Maxwell Brown ’25 as he was stretching in dance class. As he was extending his arms, Brown heard “A Brand New Day,” one of the songs from the musical. This moment “sparked a memory” for Brown and made him determined to “bring Black joy to Yale.”
“The Wiz” — a reimagined version of The Wizard of Oz in the context of contemporary African American culture — will run at the Off Broadway from Feb. 23 to Feb. 25. With music and lyrics written by Charlie Smalls, the musical originally ran on Broadway in 1975 with an all-Black cast, a tradition that will be continued at Yale.
“We were just doing an exercise in class, but I was just reminded of the joy I was having as a kid, of expanding and being bold and big and free with no constraints,” said Brown. “And I think that’s just what ‘The Wiz’ means to me. Of course, it’s coupled with the Black experience because ‘The Wiz’ is definitively a Black show. It’s just as Black as it is big.”
As the storyline within “The Wiz” presents characters traveling to different realities and locations, the production and set design team utilized the width of the Off Broadway Theater and the LED wall to “create worlds out of nothing,” according to Brown.
The images projected on the LED wall were illustrated by Zara Belo ’25, who drew inspiration for the musical’s scenic landscapes from Black aesthetics. In creating the lair for the Wicked Witch of the West, Belo put a spin on Afrofuturistic style to evoke an “Afro-dystopic” setting.
“We got all these projections, this wide space, these magnificent lights and all these different set pieces and costumes coming together,” said Brown. “It’s a fantasy. It’s a Black fantasy. And that’s what we’re trying to create because Black people can live and exist in that specific genre of adventure and fantasy.”
While conveying a story of “Black celebration,” “The Wiz” also captures the varied experiences within the Black community through its diverse cast members and different characteristics of each role. According to Brown, this plurality helps counter the “stereotypical dehumanization” that occurs from a monolithic perception of Blackness.
“[Producer Alika Osadolor-Hernandez ’25] is Nigerian and Mexican. As someone who is African American, having those different Black identities occupying the space also reflects the polylithic nature of the Black experience,” said Brown. “I want to emphasize that ‘The Wiz’ is also about the vast diversity within the Black experience. … Everyone in the cast is Black, but every character is so different.”
Relatedly, for Jonathan Akinniyi ’26, his method of portraying “The Wiz” directly integrates his own mannerisms, personality and “emotional intelligence” into the role. In envisioning his character, Akinniyi asks himself “if the Wiz is a 30-, 40-year-old, how would 30- or 40-year-old Jonathan act?”
The soundtrack is also deeply rooted in Black music, incorporating “soul music, funk and groove.” According to Brown, the music in “The Wiz” is not just “electric, vibrant, fantastic,” but reflects a crucial aspect of the Black experience.
“The Black experience is rooted within soul music, and our music spans from spirituals and gospel, all these different uses of music as communication and a way to grapple with the things that were put and forced onto us,” said Brown. “Here, it is a celebratory thing and coupling that with the storyline, every plot, every song is coupled with the symbolism of [joy, freedom and belonging] within the Black experience.”
According to Lauren Moore ’24, who plays the role of Dorothy, one challenge the cast faced was finding overlap in the castmates’ busy schedules.
However, the team overcame these scheduling conflicts by making sacrifices and dedicating extra time to the production.
“Because there are so few all-Black productions on campus, especially with musicals and musicals about Black joy, we all sacrifice and work super, super hard to make sure that we all continually make a production that we’re proud of,” Said Moore. “Despite those conflicts, it’s been really fun to just come together and create magic on the stage.”
The 15-member cast is, unsurprisingly, smaller than that of the Broadway production. However, the five members of the ensemble carry a considerable burden in alternating between different roles — undergoing fast-paced costume changes and wearing makeup to further distinguish characters. To Jordan Mincy ’26, these hectic moments backstage pay off to convey “the different worlds” within the musical.
For Moore, acting and working with “The Wiz” cast has been a source of Black joy. She hopes that she can impart this energy to the audience members who watch the performance.
“I just want them to leave feeling a lot happier than they did when they sat down, feeling as if they experienced something truly fun,” Moore said. “I want people to walk away from the performance and feel as though that they’ve just had a blast, just as we’re having a blast on stage.”
Off Broadway Theater is located on 41 Broadway, New Haven, Connecticut.