Metro Weekly

The Wiz’s Kent Gash: “It is a gift to be African-American”

Director Kent Gash and company put a dazzling stamp on a vibrant classic of modern musical theater

The Wiz at Ford’s Theatre — Photo: Carol Rosegg

“The Wiz is a beloved classic of American musical theater,” says Kent Gash. “And it’s historically so important. It was the first black musical produced by an African-American producer, with a predominantly African-American creative team, to go on to win seven Tony Awards. That had never happened in history before. It had a long and very successful run financially.”

Gash, one could say, had a date with The Wiz long before his own production of the hit musical landed at Ford’s Theatre. For nearly his entire life in theater, the esteemed director has drawn some spark of inspiration from the hugely popular African-American take on Dorothy’s journey to Oz.

“I started performing as an actor when I was a kid,” Gash says. “In fact, I saw…the original national Broadway tour while I was still in high school. I saw it like six times. It had a big, big impact on me.”

Billed as the “Super Soul Musical,” The Wiz was one of many productions to cast a glow in the eye of the young black artist. Gash’s music and culture-loving parents took him and his older sister to see almost every major touring production that passed through their hometown of Denver, Colorado.

“They took me to see Zero Mostel in Fiddler On The Roof. I saw the touring production of Company. I saw Angela Lansbury in Gypsy. They took us to those things when we were very young.” However, it was The Wiz, with its ebullient display of African-American talent, that really spoke to Gash as a theater kid.

“It was the first black musical I ever saw where the black people didn’t have to suffer, where the black people were not sad all the time, and crying about the blues, or crying poverty,” he says. “It wasn’t Showboat, it wasn’t Porgy and Bess. It was a piece that was alive, and vibrant, and dynamic, and full of joy, and full of hope, and full of an energy that seemed to be unstoppable.”

The Wiz at Ford’s Theatre — Photo: Carol Rosegg

Gash fatefully crossed paths again with The Wiz while studying drama and acting at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, when he booked an early professional role playing the Lion onstage.

“I was very young when I did it,” Gash recalls. “We did a small production in Pittsburgh that was choreographed by Broadway diva Lenora Nemetz…. One of my best friends, actress Tamara Tunie, who was on Law and Order: SVU and 24, was Glinda. We were all classmates together and were like, ‘Let’s go down here and get these jobs,’ and we did. It was great fun.”

Gash’s staging at Ford’s recaptures that sense of youthful fun, fueled by the unstoppable energy of well-honed talent unleashed both onstage and behind the curtain. A similar life-affirming spirit lit up the director’s fabulous production of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Wig Out! last spring at Studio Theatre. Though a much darker tale of an innocent’s journey to the other side of the rainbow, Gash’s Wig Out!, like his staging of The Wiz, showed a flair for expressing the vibrancy within the black community.

“It’s really important for me to tell stories that celebrate and uplift African-American life, and also to tell the stories about African-American life that don’t get told all the time. That’s why it was so incredibly important to me to continue my working relationship with Tarell Alvin McCraney,” says Gash, who first teamed with the Oscar-winning playwright for a 2015 staging of the gay-themed drama Choir Boy, also at Studio. “No other playwright in the country is shedding as much light and so beautifully on the existence of the African-American and LGBTQIA community of color.”

The Wiz at Ford’s Theatre — Photo: Carol Rosegg

The Wiz features several performers who, like the director himself, identify somewhere on the LGBTQ spectrum. And a few of the show’s characterizations, most notably Christopher Michael Richardson’s gloriously camp Cowardly Lion, reflect a story-conscious commitment to queer inclusion.

Undoubtedly one of the buzzwords of the cultural moment, inclusion is also a key component of Gash’s philosophy as an educator. The founding director of NYU Tisch School of the Arts’ New Studio on Broadway, Gash spends much of his time, when he’s not flipping over farmhouses at Ford’s, molding the talents of future thespians and directors.

“It’s an interesting, fascinating time to be teaching young emerging artists, because they have fast access to a great deal of information,” says the 57-year-old during an hour-long phone conversation. “The speed of that access has often given them a misperception about craft and about the dedication, the dedicated hours, discipline, and rigor required to really become an actor, to excel and to really become an artist.

“One of the great things about many artists in this generation — particularly many of the artists of color within this generation — is that there’s a deep desire for artistic expression, and social and cultural responsibility, and intersection to be a part of the work. You feel a deeper sense of representation of honor about culture, about using your whole self to really make the work, and to really have an impact, not only for yourself, but to really have an impact on audiences. People want to play for diverse, inclusive audiences now and work in diverse and inclusive companies of actors. There’s more and more of this happening, so that’s a great thing.”

The Wiz at Ford’s Theatre — Photo: Carol Rosegg

METRO WEEKLY: How did you find yourself in New York?

KENT GASH: I was an actor for 20 years. Before I became a director, I went to Carnegie Mellon University, which is the oldest actor training program in America and one of the very best. I had a great time. Right after Carnegie Mellon I moved to New York and have lived here really ever since. Although, I’ve gone away to do other things. I went to Los Angeles to get my Masters in directing. I was a company member at American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. I was also in residence as the Associate Artistic Director of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival for two years, and for eight years was the Associate Artistic Director of the Alliance Theater in Atlanta. All that time, I still kept a place in New York.

MW: Is New York home for you now, or is it more like your Oz?

GASH: Home home for me is always going to be Denver, Colorado, because that’s where my family still lives. I go back to Denver and spend time there, easily five or six times a year. My sister still lives in Denver. My mom, who will be 90 in September, still lives in Denver. My roots as a human being, in many ways, start in Denver.

Is New York Oz? Well, yeah. It’s always going to be Oz in so many ways, because it’s a city of infinite, endless possibility, and wonder. There’s always something to aspire to in New York. Even criminals who come to New York want to be a world class best criminal. I think it’s an aspirational kind of city that can bring out the best in people. Especially in this complicated world that we live in now, it’s important that we not take each other for granted. It’s important that we listen, and listen with an open spirit and an open heart, and an open mind.

MW: Your iteration of Oz captures the quality of a place of infinite possibility and wonder. What’s your take on how much Dorothy might want to remain in Oz, versus returning to Kansas?

GASH: I think it’s like the Scarecrow says to her near the end of the play, “As long as you have the silver slippers, you could always come back.” The brilliance of The Wizard of Oz as a story, and in particular the brilliance of The Wiz, is that Dorothy goes on this extraordinary journey and throughout the journey she keeps discovering things that evoke home, or that evoke strengths from her aunt and uncle. She realizes that home is actually wonderful, and she always has that with her and in her. Just like all of us, as African Americans, if we experience the great love of our families, that’s always with us. She experiences great love and support in her adventures in Oz.

I think one of the reasons why the last scene of the piece is so moving is that she has made great friends of the Scarecrow, and of the Lion, and of the Tin Man, and they’ve all been through something together. They all learn that they’re more resilient, and more courageous, and more passionate than they ever dreamed they could be. She’s learned that, too. She’s given that to them, they’ve given that to her. They will all always carry those things. Oz is as much a state of mind and a state of being, as it is an actual place. That’s something that great cities and great human experiences give you.

The Wiz at Ford’s Theatre — Photo: Carol Rosegg

MW: There’s a strong current of contemporary pop culture that runs through this particular production. How do you choose your spots for mentions of things like Wakanda and Siri?

GASH: A lot has been written about little references to Wakanda, and Siri. I want to be really clear that those things are little grace notes that have only been added where it specifies in the script, “There’s an ad lib here.” In 1975, there were ad lib references that were current and that connected the piece, or gave a little wink, to the time they were performing in. Those little references capture the spirit.

Ninety-nine percent of what we’re doing is the original play as it was done in 1975. So much of the heart and soul of the play is as it was in 1975, about this wonderful adventure that this brilliant young girl goes on, who doesn’t even know that she’s brilliant and magical.

The other thing that we have tried to do is tease out and really use all of the references and celebrations of great black music, and entertainment, and culture, and style. Black people have brought so much style, and music, and creativity to American life, and to the international perception of culture. We’ve changed music, we’ve led fashion in so many ways. Even now, the preeminence of something like Black Panther, some people have been surprised by that. Actually, I’m not. I’m not surprised by it at all. We’ve been on this path and this trajectory for some time.

MW: The character of the Wiz himself reflects this really well. He’s cut from a similar cloth as Prince or Rick James, pioneers who disseminated black culture to a mainstream audience. Were you deliberately going for that with this concept of the character?

GASH: Well, yes. I think we did tease that out. I do think there are suggestions of Prince, James Brown, but also Little Richard, Michael Jackson, even Louis Jordan, who was the first great black rock-and-roll pioneer. These references have all become part of world culture. Black music, soul music, rock-and-roll, disco, rhythm and blues, jazz — we’re accessing all of them in this glorious score, all of those songs. We really took our cue from the music. If you listen to “Y’all Got It,” even on the original Broadway cast recording, Andre DeShields sounds a lot like James Brown performing at the Apollo, circa 1975. We took our cue from James Brown to Prince, back to Little Richard, forward to Rick James. They’re all connected, and we’re all connected to all of them. That’s the music we’ve grown up with. That’s the music we’ve lived through. Those artists still have a reach in popular music, in popular culture, to this day.

MW: Speaking of Michael Jackson, it seems that regardless of what a cast and director do with The Wiz, ever since the ’78 film adaptation it’s virtually impossible to watch the show without thinking of Jackson, Diana Ross, Nipsey Russell. Is that something you lean into?

GASH: That film, when it came out originally, was not critically well-received. It actually didn’t do so well at the box office. For those of us who loved and knew the Broadway production really well, there are great, wonderful flights of imagination in the film. But there are also some things that were genius in the original production that, sadly, didn’t make it to the film, that they changed. I think it’s interesting the love that has come over time for the film. Look, it’s directed by one of the great American filmmakers in history, Sidney Lumet, who is really a genius on so many levels. He was a genius at recognizing talent. One of his main reasons for making the film is that Lena Horne, who played Glinda, was his mother-in-law. He wanted to give her one more great film role. For many of us, that sequence in the film is the most beautiful and most heartfelt, because Lena Horne is just magnificent as Glinda. She’s magnificent.

In terms of the impact of the film on our production, we all have things about the film that we love, but you can’t do on stage what you can do on film, and vice versa. We wanted to capture the spirit and imagination — particularly the visual imagination — that went into some of the film, but our truest inspiration for this production was to stand on the shoulders of the creative giants who made the original [Broadway] production: Jeffrey Holder, George Faison, Charlie Smalls, Tom H. John, Tharon Musser. What they did originally was genius, and we really took our inspiration from them. They really seemed to capture lightning in a bottle. Endless invention, beautiful costume after beautiful costume. With each entrance of each actor on stage, you couldn’t help but think, “Black people are beautiful and miraculous.” That’s really what I wanted to capture all night long. Black people are beautiful and miraculous, and it is a gift to be African-American.

The Wiz at Ford’s Theatre — Photo: Carol Rosegg

MW: Going back to your childhood, was your family always supportive of your love of theater?

GASH: My family was intensely supportive of it. [My mother and father] took us to the theater all the time. They just felt we should be exposed to everything. They loved theater. They loved music. My dad knew a lot of jazz musicians. He made friends with a lot of jazz musicians. He knew Billie Holiday. He saw her not long before she died, in fact. We grew up with Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Oscar Peterson, and Ray Brown. They were all family friends. We grew up knowing them. There was always music in our house. We had a piano. We all had to study piano for at least a year as kids. Then if we wanted to play something else, we could, but they really wanted us to have music in our lives. Look, I thought growing up everybody grew up the way I did, for a while. Then I started to sort of realize, as I was getting older, “Oh, this is unique, how we’re growing up.”

MW: How did your father know Billie Holiday and all these people?

GASH: It’s interesting, my father, he’s no longer with us, but in Denver there was a huge and thriving black community in Denver.

MW: This is news to me, by the way.

GASH: I think it is to a lot of people. My parents were both born and raised in Denver, and my father was a very gregarious, outgoing, social guy. [Singers and musicians] would play concerts or clubs in Denver, but then they would go to the after-hours clubs in the black community. They would just hang out. My father would go to the concerts and then he would see them at these clubs, and begin to get to know people. If they were there for more than a night or two, he would invite people to the house for dinner, or invite people to our home on a Sunday, so they wouldn’t have to be just living out of a hotel and having to deal with that all the time. They could bring their laundry to our house and just kind of chill out, and have a home-cooked meal and spend some time outside of a hotel room. That’s really how he got to know people. He and my mom were both really friendly and open people. That’s how it happened.

MW: Along this journey from Denver, to Pittsburgh, to New York, and beyond, what have been the main challenges you’ve faced as an artist?

GASH: I think the main challenges stem from a couple of things. I think when I started as an actor, I was somewhat selfish. I was a lot younger, so I’m going to give myself a little bit of a break on that. But I think I was selfish in some ways. I actually think that’s why, while I may have been successful as an actor and I was able to make my living and sustain myself, and was able to do a lot of work that I was proud of, I don’t know if I was ever a great actor.

Now, as a director, I’m more interested in the dialogue and in the exchange between people, and in what and how a group of people can come together and create something. Whatever conversation I might be able to begin as a director, whatever creative conversation you begin, if it’s a genuine dialogue, then it’s totally informed by what everyone else brings to the table, and it has to be. I think as an actor, I was not as impacted, as affected by other human beings as perhaps I should have been. Where, as a director, I definitely seek out the richest possible collaborations, and that I think always improves the work.

I’m also much more curious now than I ever was before in my life. I think if you want to be an artist, you have to be much more interested in what you don’t know, rather than being interested in proving what you do know. If you know something, it’ll be self-evident, and that’s fine. We can all learn — and again this goes all the way back to Dorothy — something from every single human being we encounter. If you listen, if you’re open, if you pay attention, and if you’re more interested in someone else’s journey than you are in just regurgitating your own journey, if you want to really do anything that has any kind of impact, that has to be the conversation. That has to be what we’re on about.

Any other difficulties or adversities that I’ve experienced — and I’m not saying that I haven’t — I think sometimes there is still the underestimating of gifted people of color and of members of the LGBTQIA community. I think there can still be a sense that we are somehow less than. I would say that this has improved. Certainly, I don’t experience that as much. It also doesn’t surprise me when I still experience it — and I do. You can’t pay any attention to that. You can’t ignore it either, but the obstacle of that can’t become your sole focus. The way you overcome that obstacle is through excellence, and constantly striving for something beyond that.

Also you shouldn’t look for approval from people who can’t see you. If you don’t see me, that’s fine, that’s whatever. I’m not investing time and energy in people that aren’t investing the same time and energy that I am, and that aren’t investing the time and energy in every human being and in every encounter. People who don’t see value in every human experience, I’m not investing time in them. I’m not.

The Wiz at Ford’s Theatre — Photo: Carol Rosegg

MW: Speaking about LGBTQ influences or sensibility, how would you respond to anyone who called this production a very gay Wiz?

GASH: Look, there are gay people involved in creating it, just as there were originally. There is no moment where I, as the director, said, “Let’s do this because that would be really gay.” Kara Harmon’s genius costumes, Jason Sherwood’s surprising and exciting scenic design, where literally the stage gets turned upside down, the genius of the lighting of Rui Rita, and the projections of Clint Allen, and the unbelievable music direction of Darius Smith — I don’t think any of us sat down and said, “Let’s do this or that because it’d be really gay.”

I think that when you’re trying to tell a story, when you’re creating something, you bring all of your humanity into the room. You have to. I work with really inspiring collaborators, and so we bring all of ourselves into the room. I think Dell Howlett’s choreography of this production is every bit as great as George Faison’s original Tony Award-winning choreography. It’s different. Even though it stands on the shoulders of Faison’s work, so much of it is originally and completely Dell’s creation. I’ve never been prouder of a collaborator in my life, than I am of Dell’s work in this.

I think to your question, one of our guiding aesthetics and principles was, “Okay, if this is the first play you’ve ever seen and you’re five years old, or your 85-year old grandmother brings you to the theater, how do we make and tell a story that delights the child who is five and who is seeing a play for the first time? How do we endlessly delight and surprise that child? How do we warm the heart and delight the 95-year old grandmother, too, so that they both leave the theater exhilarated and feeling uplifted?” I think the theater is really about surprise, and awe, and wonder. If surprise, and awe, and wonder are a step away from being fabulous, and fierce, and gay, okay. Those things are pretty closely aligned. I don’t know if that’s intentional. It’s part and parcel of who we all are as collaborators, and part and parcel of what we bring to the making of the story.

Certainly, I think it’s the heart of the story that’s most important. The heart, the love, the caring, the generosity of Dorothy’s spirit — I actually hope that feels like it’s really part of the gay community too. That’s the stuff that keeps us all alive. That’s the best that we have to offer each other. If that’s what the gay community is offering, if that’s who we are and that’s what we bring, then yeah, it’s gay.

MW: What’s happening with the musical you co-wrote, Langston In Harlem, about gay Harlem Renaissance writer Langston Hughes?

GASH: Walter Marx, who is a veteran Broadway composer and lyricist approached me about wanting to do a piece based on Langston Hughes’ poetry. I was like, “Yeah, sure. That sounds great.” We started working together on it. Through several versions and several iterations, we arrived at something that I think is attempting to understand how Langston matured into the man he became, through the work that he was doing. I have to say, I don’t know if our work on it is entirely finished. I think that it’s a piece that I want to do a better job with. I think at the time and for as far as we went, we did a lot of very good things, but I think Langston Hughes deserves a greater piece of work about his existence, and about his work, and about his contributions. It’s a piece that someday in my life I would very much like to revisit, and perhaps approach somewhat differently. I want to do it better. I suppose I feel that way about everything. You step away and you think, “Maybe that was pretty good, but how do we do it better?”

MW: So what triggers the notion when you’re working on something, “This is ready?”

GASH: That’s a dangerous question to ask a director. We never think it’s ready. You always see — even as it’s opening and it’s closing — something. Like at the closing night of Wig Out!, I thought, “That one little thing I could have made better.” This is life.

I think this is part of what makes us get up every morning. Aren’t we saying that about our own lives? Aren’t we looking in the mirror and thinking, “Well, what I’ve been doing so far, that’s okay, but, boy, today I could do this better. Today I could be a little kinder. Today I could be a little more compassionate. Today I could listen more than talk.” Aren’t we saying that with every waking breath? Aren’t we asking those questions all the time? This is why we stay on the planet for as long as we do, because hopefully the next day you’ll get it right, you’ll get the next relationship right. You’ll get the next conversation right. You’ll get the next engagement closer to something genuine and something true.

The Wiz runs to May 12 at Ford’s Theatre, 511 Tenth St. NW. Tickets are $20 to $73. Call 888-616-0270, or visit fords.org.

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