Monday, February 7, 2022

The Black WIZARD OF OZ - Part One

Theatre critic Sylvester Russell
Seventy-one years before the premiere of The Wiz, a Black journalist and theatre critic named Sylvester Russell first proposed a production of The Wizard of Oz with a Black cast. 

Russell began his career as a singer in the late 1880s as Harvey Russell. In 1891, resisting attempts to pigeon-hole him as just another "minstrel" performer, he wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Age, explaining he was not associated with any minstrel troupe and should "hereafter be known as the famous countertenor." Click here to read more about Sylvester Russell. By the late 1890s, Russell had transitioned from singer to music and theatre critic, writing for newspapers such as the Indianapolis Freeman and the Chicago Defender.

Russell published his critique of The Wizard of Oz in the February 27, 1904, issue of the Indianapolis Freeman, the first illustrated Black newspaper in the United States. The Wizard of Oz had recently completed a run at English's Opera House in Indianapolis, February 18-20, 1904. 

The Wizard of Oz produced a strong response in Russell, so much so that he felt compelled, for the first time, to review a white performance.


By Sylvester Russell

For the first time in my history as a stage critic I review a white performance. I do so merely for comparison and to satisfy colored actors that my past criticisms have been quite favorable to their future comedy success.

The Wizard of Oz is a musical comedy extravaganza, exploiting Dave Montgomery and Fred P. [sic] Stone as stars. The Wizard is a very large production with the usual 75 people billed as 150. The curtain rises on a gale storm such as you have never before seen.

When the storm subsides, you behold a beautiful chorus of women and plenty of fresh painted scenery which changes to many different shades by mean of transcendent lights. All this is a portion of extravagant time which pleases the eyes and eases the playwright.

The Wizard of Oz is said to be the greatest musical comedy of the season, but it is certainly not the funniest, and that's why I review it.

The choruses work well and the incidental music is fine. The singing is made up of popular sounds and choruses, which all go well, surrounded by an atmosphere of heavenly grandeur. This means the music is by many different composers without any regard to what the programs say.

The popular song, "Sammy," is sung by a quaint soubrette dressed in a short skirt of silvery glittering spangles. She sings to a man in one of the boxes, which proves that any old gag of the variety stage order suits the majority. What a pity this young woman can't talk to the men in boxes, in the bargain, and set the houses wild—she would even be quite as legitimate as she is now.

Ada Overton Walker (1880-1914)
"Sammy" is a bird. This same song, if enacted by Ada Overton Walker would be a walkover. Another little soubrette, Miss Loughlin [sic], I believe, with a very weak voice, was quite a feature. There is only one real female singer in the show and she sings love songs very tunefully. The singing of the chorus is good, but no better than the Howard Atheneaum Stock Burlesque Company in Boston, which can boast of having one of the best drilled choruses of real voices in America.

Montgomery and Stone as Stars

Nothing is more pleasing to a manager than to read the critic's estimation of his stars, especially when they have to play characters bordering on the very verge of insanity. In the first place, Montgomery and Stone's names are twisted.

The bills should read Stone and Montgomery. If Montgomery had less name and more ability, his partner, Fred P. [sic] Stone, would not be able to attract as much attention as he does. Neither of them are loaded down with much more than nimble feet and a natural appetite for dancing. 

Fred Stone plays the principal comedy part, for no other reason than being the best comedian of the two. His first creation of a "man without brains" is an easy victory for a starter, and he has nothing to do until he is given some brains. In some parts of the dialogue Montgomery and Stone may have been botchworkers and many of the comedians of to-day are badly affected with spoiling much of the fruit of a good playwright's mind. But we can rest assured that Fred P. [sic] Stone is a good comedian and gives good account of his worthy exercises. Mr. Montgomery is simply a very good buck dancer and outside of that, verdict is dismissed. He wears a heavy clad suit of clothes that will save him from making a fatal attempt at real acting. He also sings through the limbs of a tree, not a hoodoo tree such as we used to see DeWolf Hopper display his matchless buffoonery in, in [the] comic opera Boccaccio. No. He sticks his head through a limb and bids the chorus girls to do the rest. 

Montgomery has a good, loud voice, and being a graduate from the variety stage, he knows how to use it.

I forget now where it was I remember as far back as seeing him play a dime museum engagement. Just for the sake of mediocrity of racial comparison, I might state that Montgomery and Stone, two white comedians who have worked their way up from the lowest rank of performers, did not succeed in reaching the goal in advance of Williams and Walker, who had to plough through all the common prejudices of America; even succeeding in reaching the king's throne in a country where lynching is unknown and where color has no drawbacks except from an inferior European-American. This proves that colored performers, like other successful people of their race, are fully entitled to all the honors in proportion that a King or a U. S. President can bestow upon them.

Indeed, if we are to have a new addition of disguised cromos—there are two of the Wizard companies on the road—let us have a third; let managers Hurtig and Seamon secure the rights to The Wizard of Oz, and let Williams and Walker star in it. Mr. Williams could play Mr. Stone's part as it has never been played before (so could Bob Cole) and Mr. Walker could play Mr. Montgomery's part—but with plenty of clown grease on his face. Sam Lucas could play the long-bearded old man [Sir Wylie Gyle], Jesse Sharp could play it also. Fred Douglass could play the Irish Wizard, but I'm not too sure about his dialect. I am confident that a colored company in this comedy would have great drawing power. The play is a budget without race or color excepting the "Wizard." It's a something from somewhere that nobody knows anything about.


Russell's review fascinates me. The subjectivity of Russell's point of view as a Black critic, creates one of the most objective appraisals of the show I have seen. Russell neither regurgitates the press releases, nor does he condemn the show from on high, in love with the sound of his own voice.

Russell had wisely suggested Hurtig and Seamon as producers for the "colored company" of The Wizard of Oz. A perfect choice, as Hurtig and Seamon had presented Williams and Walker in Sons of Ham in 1899 and In Dahomey, which again starred Williams and Walker, in February 1903 and was the first Broadway show to be both written by and performed by Blacks on Broadway. Hurtig and Seamon went on to build what became the famous Apollo Theater in Harlem.

In November 1906, Hurtig and Seamon did, in fact, buy the rights to The Wizard of Oz. A shame, then, that the producers never took up Russell's idea for the "colored company" of the show. Hurtig and Seaman toured The Wizard of Oz for three seasons. As far as is known, they never cast a person of color in the show.

Russell's casting ideas are phenomenal. Bert Williams [1874-1922] and George Walker [1872 or 1873-1911] had both achieved stardom independently before joining forces and debuting in vaudeville at Koster and Bial's in 1897. The duo first appeared on Broadway at the Casino Theatre in 1898 in their act The Gold Bug.

Bert Williams and George Walker.

George Walker was married to Ada Overton Walker, whom Russell had so appropriately cast as Tryxie Tryfle. Known as "The Queen of the Cakewalk," she was also an actress, singer, dancer, and choreographer. If given the chance, she would have owned "Sammy."

Performer Sam Lucas (1848-1916)

Russell provided two casting ideas for Sir Wiley Gyle, whom Russell calls the "long-bearded old man," Sam Lucas and Jesse Sharp. Sam Lucas (1848-1916) began his career in minstrelsy, but became a respected dramatic actor and sometimes composer. I find no information on Jesse Sharp. 

I can find no information on Fred Douglass, whom Russell suggested take the title role of the Wizard. I wish Russell had given us his imaginary cast for the remainder of the principals. 

Alas, this proposed "colored company" of The Wizard of Oz never happened. Or did it? You'll have to wait for part two of this post to find out!

Click here to read PART TWO of The BLACK Wizard of Oz

Copyright © 2022 by David Maxine. All rights reserved.

No comments:

Post a Comment