- A Brand New Day on BroadwayThe Genius of Geoffrey Holder's Artistry and His Intentional Evocation of the African Diaspora
In 1975, Broadway was hit by a storm that was bigger than the one that swept Dorothy Gale away from Kansas and into the Land of Oz. That storm was a musical called The Wiz, directed by the inimitable Geoffrey Holder (1930–2014), whose illustrious career spanned four decades as an actor, director, painter, and costume designer. After The Wiz suffered a series of disastrous previews at the Mechanic Theatre in Baltimore and the Fisher Theatre in Detroit, Holder took over the reins of the latter production from director Gilbert Moses. What happened afterward was nothing short of a miracle. Rallying around Holder, choreographer George Faison, composer/lyricist Charlie Smalls, and librettist William F. Brown joined forces to heal a fractured cast after Gilbert's departure. After affectionate hugs and chanting positive mantras failed to win over the cast, Holder decided to use his own money to purchase food and drink to bring the cast closer together.1 The plan worked to get the production to New York, but it could not prevent an inauspicious Broadway opening, with The Wiz widely panned by critics. The production nearly closed amid deepening financial woes. However, the ultimate success of the musical did not come via flashy marketing but from old-fashioned word-of-mouth promotion.2 Sandra Manley, a press agent for the show, gave away limitless press tickets to radio personalities, newspaper writers, and television agents in exchange for their promotion of the struggling show.3
While the debuts of fifteen-year-old Stephanie Mills as Dorothy and eighteen-year-old Hinton Battle as the Scarecrow were heralded as break-out performances, Holder's innovative and inspired direction quickened the pace of the show. Not only did The Wiz become a runaway hit, but [End Page 118] it received a number of awards along the way. The show ran from January 1975 to May 1977 at the Majestic Theatre, and then from May 1977 to January 1979 at the Broadway Theatre, for a total of 1,672 performances.4 The show garnered Holder two Tony Awards, for Best Direction of a Musical and for Best Costume Designs.5 Although the iconic costumes from the film The Wizard of Oz (1939) have become touchstones of American cultural memory, Holder created new costumes for The Wiz with great flamboyance and aplomb, giving the story a new cultural context. Evocation of the African Diaspora played a huge role in making Holder's costume designs for The Wiz a success.
People of African descent have been speaking in code, writing with hidden messaging, and dealing in double entendres since they before they began arriving in the New World as a result of the transatlantic slave trade. Enslaved Africans commonly used "call and response" songs on the slave ships to communicate with one another. A seemingly innocuous Negro spiritual such as "Steal Away," which appeared to be a melodious plantation ditty and a possible pious call for prayer, turned out to be a coded invitation to join Harriet Tubman's Underground Railroad, a musical bolt toward freedom. In this tradition of the African Diaspora, librettist William F. Brown, composer/lyricist Charlie Smalls, and producer Ken Harper took an American classic like The Wizard of Oz, famous as both a book and a movie, and updated it for a 1970s African American audience. And in a continuation of the Diaspora motif, Holder planted relevant evocations of the black aesthetic in his costume designs and in his use of Afro-Caribbean musical instruments, African American historical and artistic references, and Afrofuturistic allusions and motifs.
The celebration of Afro-Caribbean musical instruments and clothing designs are evident in Holder's costumes for The Wiz. Holder fashioned the Tin Man's oilcan from a güiro, in homage to a popular West Indian musical instrument. Janell Hobson of Albany State University calls attention to the importance of the güira, denoting its unique ties to the island of Hispaniola, the locale of the Dominican Republic and Haiti.6 While the güiro is...