An All-White “The Wiz” Cast Causes Uproar

by Evette Dionne

Letrice TitusCicero-North Syracuse High School in Cicero, New York, is preparing a theatrical performance of “The Wiz.” Students have been practicing for weeks, belting tunes performed by Diana Ross and Michael Jackson down the Yellow Brick Down. But none of the featured cast in a beloved black American classic is black. Parents are outraged and the Cicero community is in uproar.

Kierrah Titus was one of seven African-American students that auditioned for the musical, which The Guide to Musical Theater refers to as “a black version of the perennial Wizard of Oz.” Titus was the only one of those seven students chosen and she was relegated to the ensemble dance troupe.

Titus’ mother, Letrice Titus, is one of the parents lodging a complaint against the school. She questions why no black students were selected for leading roles. “Are there no talented African-American students at C-NS?” L. Titus asked a reporter at the Post-Standard. “Was there any outreach to the African-American students in the school? Why didn’t the school just do The Wizard of Oz?”

Those are questions she posed to the musical director, Caryn Patterson, and other school officials in January. Titus requested a recasting of a play, with specific focus given to diversifying the cast. She alleges that the school dismissed her concerns.

I can remember the moment a high school dismissed mine as well. In one of the most diverse schools in a predominantly white school district, my first high school also cast a completely white cast in “The Wiz.” Many students were outraged, especially when so many of us auditioned and were gifted standing ovations. Like the Titus’, our angered response was considered “poor sportsmanship”  and we were chided for our behavior,

This is a blatant disregard for the black American experience and what “The Wiz” signifies for our community. We have few books, plays and movies that holistically represent elements of the black American experience. Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, and the other cast members in the film and on the stage captured “The Wizard of Oz” and made it relevant to us.

But Titus isn’t taking the slight without a ruckus. She will raise her questions at the North Syracuse Central School District Board of Education with support from the local chapter of the NAACP and other parents.

Preston Fagan, Cicero’s NAACP chapter president, thinks this is an important issue to address.

“To not let a black student have an acting role in this play is appalling,” Fagan told the Post-Standard. “It’s almost an insult.”

  • http://pinxitphoto.com Raquita

    look, they just cast Quvenzhane Wallis as Annie… we gotta be able to give as good as we get…

  • Ashley.

    Wait. So white folks get to follow AND ease on down the yellow brick road?! Nawl.

  • Elyse

    I disagree…why do we have to give because we get? lol

  • Taz

    No one was complaining when an ALL Black cast redid Steel Magnolias

  • OhPuhleezee

    The school has about 2000 white students and 93 black students. 7 black students auditioned and only 1 of them auditioned for a major role. Your spot in a cast is no different than your spot in a troupe or your spot on a team……you have to try-out and you have to win your spot. No blacks should’ve been promised a spot no matter what production was chosen. So the comment from the NAACP is ridiculous. I applaud the school for wanting to do the Wiz instead of The Wizard of Oz. The fact that it was chosen disproves the opinion that it is “blatant disregard for the black American experience.” We need to do a better job of picking our battles.

  • Double Standard?

    I too said the same thing. In fact, I would even argue if the school had “done targeted outreach” parents would may have responded “oh, you’re asking my child because he/she is black?” Sometimes it is a lose/lose for black people. We need to do better. It’s not always ‘the man trying to hold you down.’ Maybe it was the case that they gave the roles to those who deserved them. Surely these parents are not implying their students should have received special treatment because of the color of their skin. Because, that would surely be the pot calling the kettle….well, black.

  • http://seritatheresa.wordpress.com seritatheresa

    But I bet daddy warbucks won’t be played by Ving Rhames

  • isolde3

    @Raquita

    Oh, so by “they” you mean Will Smith and Jay-Z, two of the producers of the Annie remake? Your analogy makes no sense whatsoever.

  • GiaB.

    Thank You! I thought the same thing. I’m not really sure how I feel about this. It’s definitely weird not to cast ANY black students, and it smacks of privilege not to include black folks and then be confused as to why we would get upset.

  • Jen Jen

    To be honest, if this was an ALL white school, I would have less of a problem with this.

    What concerns me–whether or not they are doing the Wiz–is that the musical director did not find a way to involve students of color AT ALL in a school-wide production. This cast does not reflect the students who attend the school.

  • http://www.urbanexpressive.com J. Nicole

    I think the difference is that Hollywood, for the most part focuses on white screen plays, so an all Black remake was done to appeal to a Black audience. It doesn’t happen often, and for any all Black remakes you can think off, there are still triple the amount if movies with an all white cast.

    Regarding the school, I’m sure it had to have crossed the minds of someone who cast all white kids in a movie that was made to target a demographic that was overlooked in the 1st place. I just find it hard to believe that not one black student who auditioned wasn’t good enough

  • OhPuhleezee

    If it was a majority Black school doing The Wizard of Oz with no Whites in the cast no one would be complaining either.

  • Anthony

    How many black students attend Cicero High? For years that city was famous for having no black residents at all. If there are not that many black students, it is possible that the indeed the most talent was among the white majority. More importantly, I am happy that a majority hits school would do a production of the Whiz at all. For what it is worth, would anyone say anything about a majority black school doing an all black production of Shakespeare or some other play that has a traditionally white cast?

  • OhPuhleezee

    Is it possible that The Wiz was chosen with the hope that it would encourage more students of color to get involved in the school’s theater department?

    Or maybe it was chosen because they found it to be a more fun production to put on.

  • -A.

    1. Maybe other kids are just better. Lead roles aren’t promised to you just because of race. Talent is talent, no matter the color.

    2. Are we forgetting that the Wiz itself was “a black version of the perennial Wizard of Oz.”? I’m sorry I can’t cry wolf on a remake of a remake that didn’t originate in the black community in the first place.

  • Tony

    Not sure whether this is a cause for outrage – yet. They shouldn’t have selected someone for a particular part on the sole basis of his/her race and if there is a very small percentage of black students and an even smaller percentage of black students with acting chops then it makes sense. The danger of the arguments the parents make is that if their kids are in a very small minority at the school, when historically white plays are cast will the black parents be willing to concede that all of those roles should go to white students? I hope the chosen students portray the characters with dignity and don’t do some colloquial shucking & jiving routine of how they think black people would act.

  • http://gravatar.com/seritatheresa seritatheresa

    No but after seeing my daughter’s Christmas concert and hearing white girls butcher solos I know two of the black and one Hispanic girl could do better this gives me pause. On the one hand you don’t just GIVE a role in order to add black and stir. On the other hand If the students of color are more talented than mom’s precious snowflake then they should be cast.

  • http://gravatar.com/seritatheresa seritatheresa

    Absolutely agree with you. It’s kind of surreal that is is an all white revival of a black remake of an all white classic. It’s actually the Wizard of Oz feat. Songs from the Wiz.

  • http://gravatar.com/seritatheresa seritatheresa

    It was chosen cause the kids watch Smash and cause its relevant in theatre right now.

  • http://gravatar.com/seritatheresa seritatheresa

    @Taz I did.

  • omfg

    if this is a public school, i don’t think the drama department should promote an all-white ensemble of the wiz.

    the wiz was made by blacks and it definitely has a black american flavor (which i like – saw the musical on stage with stephanie mills as a kid), but i think anybody can play the roles as there’s nothing mentioned that says black in the movie/musical, from what i recall.

    i would take issue if it were a production of ‘for colored girls’ and they put all white girls. this is clearly a play about black women.

    funny this comes up…i think there is a midnight showing of the wiz in the la theatre in downtown la.

  • http://commentarybyvalentina.wordpress.com Val

    No biggie unless they’re going to be mocking the production or in Blackface. Otherwise, have at it.

  • http://tontonmichel.tumblr.com Tonton Michel

    Just not enough details on the selection for me to pick a side. You would have to see the auditions of the black and white actors and make comparisons. Maybe th blacks were just not that good. Can’t tell with this info, but what is known is that the Wiz, isn’t a race based production it is just a black version of the Wizard of Oz. You don’t get the parts because your black.

  • elaine

    Honestly, after all of the all-black remakes of “white” movies, plays, etc, this is too much. And didn’t she say the black students weren’t given major roles? I think she is over reacting. We have to stop thinking that because we are black we are AUTOMATICALLY better dancers, singers, actors and athletes. What is it we call it when other people do it? Oh yeah, racist, bigots, biased…

  • http://gravatar.com/nolakiss16 binks

    This! I don’t see the problem of the remake as long as there is no black face or the kids who got the part actually got ot base on their talent….

  • GlowBelle

    Overreacting, esp. NAACP’s comment, they need to be worried about bigger things they constantly overlook than this. ‘The Wiz’ was an all-Black re-do of the all-White ‘Wizard Of Oz’, that kills the argument right there. AND since we continue this trend by doing all-Black versions of “Steel Magnolias” and “A Streetcar Named Desire”, and we’re going to be bringing back “Annie” soon, it’s time that we sit down and look in the mirror with this because we keep doing it. So let them do ‘The Wiz’, as long as they don’t do it in blackface then that is fine.

    From what I’m gathering from the comments and article is that the school district is predominately White, so it makes sense why this cast is all-White. Plus maybe the Black kids that auditioned weren’t good (hence why one made the dance troupe) or weren’t interested in theater? Just because you’re Black doesn’t mean you come popping out of the womb a singing and dancing machine. That’s stereotyping yourself. As someone who took theater in high school and was one of two Black girls who was in the group and had to take on many a well-known “White” role (Black kids at my school were just not doing or interested in theater), I fully understand this outcome and think that crying foul about it is a waste of time.

  • The Artist

    …The all-white production doesn’t bother me (certainly there are all-black productions of white plays or adaptations of them). What does bother me is the lack of an effort to attract children of color. Only seven auditioned?

  • http://gravatar.com/designdiva40 paintgurl40

    i’m on the fence about this one. it kind of reminds me of the story of the white model painted to look like an african queen. no black models were good enough or black enough for the shoot.

  • http://fromthoughtsintowords.blogspot.com/ rkahendi

    “What concerns me–whether or not they are doing the Wiz–is that the musical director did not find a way to involve students of color AT ALL in a school-wide production.”

    I’m looking at this issue from an outsider perspective, so perhaps I just don’t get it. But I gotta ask, at what point does it fall on the kids (of color or otherwise) to show an interest in participating and to pursue it? Why is there an expectation that kids will be begged, coaxed and cajoled by their teachers into auditioning for plays and stuff? Sometimes I feel like American parents go overboard with the expectation that teachers will spoon-feed their kids. If this play is of great symbolic importance within the community, shouldn’t the parents of color have been playing the more prominent role in encouraging their kids to participate?

  • http://fromthoughtsintowords.blogspot.com/ rkahendi

    I’m inclined to agree with you.

  • http://www.lorrikey.com Lorri M. Key (@mslorrim)

    This is an example of reverse type casting. As an actress, I can go to a Lion King audition and try for the lead role. But even in the world of post racial casting, I cannot and will not be considered for the lead in Sound of Music. Dig? Black Performers get most excited when shows come up for auditions and they are looking for black performers because it is scarce to have roles in the first place. So NOBODY could sing NO BAD NEWS that was black in the school? NOBODY actually came out to try and sing HOME? lol, Meh. Sometimes you have to advertise differently if you want to remain authentic to the vision of the material. So, just putting a call out on the front door of the theater dept without possibly looking at other areas of the school? Not buying it.

  • http://argentarachnids.tumblr.com Micah

    The main flaw is that you cite that there aren’t enough details but you draw conclusions anyway. It’s not about getting the part just because you’re black (if that’s what you’re taking away from this you are an idiot) it’s about how they clearly /didn’t try/ to find black cast members for the performance.
    But the strongest point is that if you find the black population so scarce that you can’t fill a cast for an all-black play, then you might as well do the Wizard of Oz because what the fuck are you thinking ganking the Wiz from us?

  • http://argentarachnids.tumblr.com Micah

    yeah no…there is not indication or comment in this article that she thinks black people are inherently better performers. you are bringing in external baggage no one is going to take from you.
    Take that bull and leave because no one is saying that.

  • http://argentarachnids.tumblr.com Micah

    Why do you admit there isn’t much detail to reach a conclusion but reach one anyway? Why do you argue, “you don’t get the parts just for being black” when that was never said? How can you not see that casting white leads for a play written for and by black people is an extremely insulting action?
    Are you are idiot? How can The Wiz not be a race based production at the same time being a black version of Wizard of Oz? Those two don’t statements don’t agree with each other.

  • http://argentarachnids.tumblr.com Micah

    Maybes, ifs and buts do not make a good argument; stop right there.
    If we have a mostly white school district the question remains, Why do you not do the Wizard of Oz? no one hear is even attempting to answer that question, merely supporting their preconceptions (a critical oversight I might add) with unfounded and wholly baseless assumptions.

  • http://argentarachnids.tumblr.com Micah

    No because none of those other productions were written or conceived to improve the state of black representation.
    There should be no conflict over racial casting unless race is important to the story or character.
    You wouldn’t cast white characters in the lead of The Color Purple or as the Maids in The Help, because doing so is racial erasure and ignores the heavily racist context of the setting.
    The Wiz is an important mark in the black community because we lacked representation, it was written to give us something to relate to.
    There is no comparison between Shakespeare and The Wiz and your argument is invalid.

  • http://argentarachnids.tumblr.com Micah

    Thank you so very much for this comment.
    (imo anyone who downvotes this is racist and upvotes on the other comments are /extremely/ racist.)

  • http://tontonmichel.tumblr.com Tonton Michel

    @Micah
    Idiot, huh? You mean the type of idiot that would accuse white people of “ganking” the Wiz from us despite the fact it was ganked from white people in the form of the Wizard of Oz? That the type of idiot your talking about? Or are you talking about the idiot who flies into a rage over a perceived injustice with out knowing all the facts? Or perhaps your talking about the idiot who thinks that 7 kids who try out for a play should get the part based on race? Idiot indeed.

  • GlowBelle

    Maybe they liked the music from ‘The Wiz’? Maybe they wanted to change it up and do this version? Maybe they were doing it to celebrate Black History Month? Heck…who knows? Ask them. All I’m going by is the info gathered here by Clutch and what people said in the comments.

  • Wendy

    They had a white boy cast as Michael Jackson character?!? Even though I hate his word but white boys do not have the swag that MJ had when it came to dancing. Their version of dancing is that “Harlem Shake” crap.

  • Ginna

    perhaps the problem here lies in the fact that there might not be any black students with acting talent in the school. if a white parent was upset because her child was forced into the dance troupe then it would just be a case of “you kid can not act” but because she is black, she should have a major acting roll? really? no.
    its acting, people are playing a part. So what if that part has them playing a different ethnicity, it happens all the time when acting.

  • Pingback: Wouldn’t an all-white version of “The Wiz” just be “The Wizard of Oz”? | Karsh Links

  • Michelle

    Details from the article are missing. There are over 2,200 students in the school. There are only 93 black students in the school (some African American, some of other black ethnicities). Only 7 black students tried out for a part in the play. Only 1 student tried out for a lead role, that being Ms. Titus’ daughter. Her daughter got an ensemble cast part, then quit. Most students at this school are involved in athletics, not the arts. While that is disheartening it is not due to race. Ms. Patterson is not racist. It could be said she was naive to think that this musical would be an ideal one. All of her choral concerts represent the broad cultural diversity of CNS, with songs sung in Swahili, German, Italian, Spanish, Japanese, Hebrew and English, among others. Her choice of play was made based on it being a good, entertaining musical. It was very well advertised during morning announcements, with posters throughout the school and on the school website. The drama department is simply not a big draw for students. Musical practices interfere with sports and other after school activities. I am not naive enough to think that racism does not exist. This, however, was NOT a racially motivated incident. If Ms. Patterson had singled out black students to try out for the play that would have been racist. If she never tried to put on a musical that depicted diversity that would be racist. While The Wiz reflects the African American experience, all of the parts are for characters. Characters can be played by anyone. It is called acting. It has no basis in race, religion, gender, height, weight or age, and all parts should be played with respect for whatever part the person is playing. It is a shame that this has been twisted into something that it is not. Ms. Titus’ accusation misleading news articles have caused a rift in the school and community that was not there before

  • http://twitter.com/RachelGettingIt Rachel Wilkerson (@RachelGettingIt)

    I find this fascinating, and disappointing. My high school, which was diverse but somewhat segregated (with a mostly-white theater department) did The Wiz my junior year of high school. I distinctly remember when a white senior, one of the stars of the department, blurted out, “She’s going to do The Wiz with a bunch of white kids?!” upon hearing the show selection for the following year. But I do give credit to the drama teacher; she went out of her way to recruit a diverse cast and Dorothy, Glinda, Addaperle (myself), and several of the other roles were all played by black students. I’m not sure if she chose this show in an effort to diversify the theater department or if she knew she better diversify if she wanted to do that show, but I felt like it was handled pretty well.

  • Missing the point

    You are missing the point of the piece my friend- the point is why are there ANY black students in the play AT ALL in lead roles- there are black students who tried out and don’t say they were “good enough” – its a high school musical not a movie production. This is not a double standard. Because it is the Wiz makes this situation even more alarming.

  • whole heartedly

    I agree

  • lex

    keep your petty racist comments okk. HELLO!!!! only 7 black teens auditioned for a part in the play. ONLY 7!!!! dont blame the school or the production for the LACK of black teens willing to participate

  • lex

    thank you!!! you are one of the few who HAS common sense. i commend you for that

  • http://www.lillian-mae.com Lillian Mae

    RE: But none of the featured cast in a beloved black American classic is black.

    Not offended…isn’t The Wiz the black version of the Wizard of Oz?

  • http://www.lillian-mae.com Lillian Mae

    I too, am sick of the black re-makes!
    Are there no ORIGINAL ideas? Human stories that involve black people?
    Hollywood is running out of ideas as well; every other movie release is a sequel to a sequel or a ruined remake of a classic!

    I saw Steel Magnolias on Sunday and while I enjoyed the movie, it was the exact same as the white version.

  • Misty Wilson

    Yes I understand your fustration with what seems like an unsympathetic school but to say that because it’s ‘The Wiz” that there should be a black persin plsying a lead role because it’s a black movie is like saying there should be a white person in a lead role if a predominatly black school decided to do ‘The Wizard of Oz’. They should not get a role based on the color of their skin but by talent alone.

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