Parent upset over high school’s all-white cast of ‘The Wiz’

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The cast of The Wiz, Michael Jackson, Nipsey Russell, Diana Ross and Ted Ross. The movie was directed by Sidney Lumet and produced by Universal Studios. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images)

The cast of The Wiz, Michael Jackson, Nipsey Russell, Diana Ross and Ted Ross. The movie was directed by Sidney Lumet and produced by Universal Studios. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images)

The Wiz has been widely regarded as the black version of the classic The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and has traditionally featured an all-black cast.

However, one high school’s production in Syracuse, New York did not cast any African-American students in the leading or supporting roles.

One parent, Letrice Titus, says she is concerned that the musical director along with school officials did not do enough to increase diversity for the production. Titus, who is African-American, says she was upset after finding out that her daughter, Kierrah, was given an ensemble role instead of one of the leads. Kierrah has since dropped out of the production.

The North Central Syracuse School District superintendent, Kim Dyce Faucette, said at the board meeting on Monday that she does not plan on cancelling the school’s musical production.

“Without a doubt, being an African-American woman, I can definitely relate,” Faucette told NBC/CBS affiliate CNY Central News. “Having said that, I’m not prepared at this point to pull the race card until I get all of the facts and can then make an informed decision.”

Titus told theGrio that in January she requested that the musical director Caryn Patterson at Cicero-North Syracuse High School (CNS) either recast the production to include more black students or choose a new musical entirely.

However, since rehearsal has already started, Titus says she simply wants her concerns to be acknowledged, so that the school will be more culturally sensitive when selecting and casting their next play or musical. Titus voiced her concerns at the school district’s board meeting this past Monday and claims she has not received a response.

TheGrio has repeatedly reached out to the Cicero-North Syracuse High School as well as the school district board members and has yet to receive a response.

“They have black talented kids at the school, but they chose to put them at the ensemble because they’re not theater kids. They should have made a collaborative effort based on diversity, cultural awareness, [and] sensitivity. How are the black kids going to feel when they see a play?” Titus told theGrio in a phone interview.

Dan Bowles, the district’s associate superintendent for teaching and learning, in an interview with Syracuse.com, says he stands behind the school’s production. Bowles says that the school’s musical director, Patterson, “wants as much diversity in all of her productions as possible” and that she chose The Wiz because it has great music, choreography and the script is easy to perform.

The executive principal of the high school, Melissa Julian told Syracuse.com, only seven African-Americans tried out for the musical and none were selected as leading or supporting roles in the play. CNS high school has only 93 black students out of the total student body of 2,200.

The local NAACP chapter in Syracuse is also getting involved with this case. Preston Fagan, local NAACP chapter president, accompanied Titus to the board meeting Monday night where she protested the lack of black actors in the school’s cast.

“Why was the version of The Wiz picked over The Wizard of Oz if you have no intent to bring out the African-American culture as The Wiz was made out to be? ” Fagan asked theGrio in a phone interview. “How can a cast with no African-Americans portray the culture of the African-Americans?…All we’re saying is next time you pick a play, think the process through before you run it.”

A group of around 10 African-American students and parents in the community have banded together to boycott the high school’s production in May according to Titus. Fagan; however, says that he is not supporting the boycott.

“None of us are saying to cancel the play. We don’t want to hurt another group of students,” says Fagan.  “It’s not that the play can’t be done by a non African-American group, but why also hurt the small segment [of African-Americans] at the school?”

Fagan believes that the director at CNS would have received more accolades if she had cast an African-American student who may have not been as talented, but was able to train and groom that person to be a leading role.

“When a white school chooses to do a black play, they need to utilize the black students not just throw them in the background,” Titus continued. “How are three white women going to produce to [The Wiz]? I don’t know how they’re going to convey a play based on black culture.”

The Wiz first opened on Broadway in 1975, winning seven Tony Awards including Best Musical, and is described as putting an urban black spin on Frank L. Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

The Broadway production was later adapted into a film, which starred Michael Jackson and Diana Ross in 1978.

Follow Brittany Tom on Twitter @brittanyrtom