To Schele Williams, Race Is Vital to Both The Wiz and The Notebook | Playbill

Special Features To Schele Williams, Race Is Vital to Both The Wiz and The Notebook

The director juggled two Broadway shows this season, along with publishing a new children's book.

Schele Williams Heather Gershonowitz

Schele Williams is having a busy season on Broadway. She co-directed the new stage musical adaptation of The Notebook with Michael Grief, which opened at the Schoenfeld Theatre March 14. Just a month later, on April 17, she opened another Broadway show: the new revival of The Wiz, at the Marquis Theatre. That production spent much of 2023 touring around the country before opening its Broadway bow—the iconic musical’s first since the ’80s.

Oh—and then there’s the book she just published, too. Your Legacy Begins: First Words to Empower, a children’s book, a folloup to her 2021 Your Legacy: A Bold Reclaiming of Our Enslaved History, was released May 7.

“I’m getting a good night’s sleep. I’m eating well,” she says when asked how she handles it all.

Williams says it’s not too hard to keep the two stage projects separate in her mind, because they couldn’t be more dissimilar. The Wiz is decidedly joyful, a modern take on The Wonderful Wizard of Oz that uses the timeless tale as a showcase of Black excellence, from the performances of its all-Black cast to its celebration of Black dance, music, and fashion. The Notebook, on the other hand, is decidedly less joyful, though Williams says race plays just as vital a role in that musical, too—more on that later.

Like many Black theatre artists, Williams has a personal connection to The Wiz. Her earliest theatre memory is of seeing the original production on Broadway, a “transformational” experience that showed Williams that she and people who looked like her could have a place on Broadway.

Kyle Ramar Freeman, Avery Wilson, Nichelle Lewis, and Phillip Johnson Richardson in The Wiz Jeremy Daniel

And it wasn’t just Broadway. “I grew up watching all the princess movies, and there was never a princess that looked like me,” Williams remembers. “Suddenly there was a piece of theatre that not only saw me inside of this epic, American story, but every character on stage represented my Blackness. That was so validating for me.”

Now in 2024, she’s eager to make this Wiz speak to her daughters’ generation and give them some important lessons.

“This revival is a gift to my children,” she says. “It’s about an incredible journey and finding belonging, about being brave and finding your tribe—all of the things that I want young people today to learn.”

And, Williams says, it’s not an accident that this element of the story reverberates extra strong with The Wiz. As has been endlessly discussed, The Wizard of Oz (particularly the 1939 MGM film adaptation) has powerful connections to the queer community, a group that knows all about finding one’s tribe, or chosen family. To Williams, The Wiz turns that up a notch by centering the Black experience.

“I wanted to lean into the joy of what it means to find people who love you for who you are,” Williams says. ”I think it’s really important for everyone to know that finding someone who’s different and quirky and interesting—that those people might be your people.”

And that’s where this revival’s revised book came in. Williams brought in comedian Amber Ruffin to throw a fresh coat of paint on William F. Brown’s original script. Along with underlining and expanding some themes that William wanted to emphasize, the director says the new book does a lot of work to bring The Wiz out of 1975 and into now.

“The goal was to make the show timeless,” she explains. “The show was entrenched in its original form in the ‘70s, and was a product of its day. Humor has periods of time, and sometimes it doesn’t age so well.” Williams doesn’t mean that the original version of The Wiz is offensive by today’s standards. But rather, the language can seem dated. Brown, who was white, wrote the script with a decidedly ‘70s lexicon. In the voices and cadences of modern performers, what was hilarious and fresh in 1975 can suddenly become stilted in 2024.

That led Williams and Ruffin to pick a vocabulary for this Wiz that relies a lot less on the latest slang. As Williams puts it, “my job was to figure out how to create this piece as timeless as possible so that a generation today can see it as their Wiz, while also creating a vocabulary where people who have loved The Wiz for years can also see it as their Wiz.”

And their work to create that Wiz had a surprising and gratifying effect, Williams says. “In Cleveland, my parents came to see it with my sisters and nephews. There were times when we all laughed together, times when my sister and I got a real chuckle, and times when my six-year-old nephew was laughing hysterically.”

Williams was watching—and participating in—intergenerational laughter, that much-sought-after, but seldom achieved, aspect of family entertainment. “I meet people who tell me they’re bringing their kid to their first Broadway show,” Williams reports. "To know that this is their first memory of theatre is the greatest honor.”

Maryann Plunkett, Joy Woods, and Jordan Tyson in The Notebook Julieta Cervantes

And then there’s The Notebook. A powerful and painful love story in which Alzheimer’s plays a major role, that show is a lot less focused on punch lines. The plot follows Noah and Allie through a hard-won and emotional courtship. The story plays out on stage as a tale being read to an Alzheimer’s patient in a nursing home, but it’s not just a fairy tale. An elderly Noah is reading their love story to Allie, who no longer remembers any of it. And, we soon find out, it’s part of Noah’s quest to bring his wife back, even for just a moment, from the clutches of the disease that has clouded her mind.

This is personal for Williams, too. Her mother has Alzheimer’s. “This story has helped me survive and cope through what is a really difficult illness to watch your parent go through,” she shares.

In the musical, a nurse cautions Noah not to get his hopes up. “This disease moves in one direction,” she says, having watched it many times before. But, Williams says, Noah’s quest to bring his wife back is not the romantic fiction one might think it is.

“[My mom] will be talking about something and it doesn’t make sense, and then all of a sudden, bursts of connection and logic come through,” Williams says. “There’s a person inside there, and sometimes they come back to visit. It’s glorious and it’s beautiful.”

Because the show features Noah and Allie at various points over their lives together, the musical is written for three sets of Noahs and Allies, ranging from their late teens to their 70s. Williams and Greif were interested in going beyond the film’s vision of a white Noah and Allie, and turned having three pairs to cast as an opportunity to really go outside the box. Older Noah and Allie, played by Dorian Harewood and Maryann Plunkett (both Tony nominees for their work), are, respectively, Black and white. The other pairs both feature Allies who are Black, played by Joy Woods and Jordan Tyson.

READ: Maryann Plunkett, Joy Woods, and Jordan Tyson on Playing the Same Character in The Notebook

When the casting was announced, commenters came out of the woodworks as they often do, claiming that characters that change race would be confusing. Williams says this is silly. “When people see the show, they never have this confusion,” she says. “In theatre, once you say something is true, we believe it. We put a chair on stage and it can become a car. You’re standing on a stage and suddenly you hear crickets, and you realize we’re outside.”

Williams, who is also a performer, has experienced this train of thought before, and she says it can end up holding Black performers back. “They’d say, ‘You can’t be the mom, because we’ll have to explain who the mom is and why she’s Black in this scene, so you’ll have to be the maid,’” she remembers being told in college. “I was like, 'Or she just says mom and everyone understands.' We are using the rules of theatre. We’re asking humans to go on a human journey.”

And, she says, it’s not just about giving Black actors jobs. It’s about flexing audiences’ empathy skills. “It becomes an opportunity for theatre to become more accessible, for us to realize that you and I could be from very different places but share the same emotion, the same love,” Williams says. 

“That’s why we do theatre.”

Schele Williams Heather Gershonowitz
Today’s Most Popular News:

Blocking belongs
on the stage,
not on websites.

Our website is made possible by
displaying online advertisements to our visitors.

Please consider supporting us by
whitelisting with your ad blocker.
Thank you!