Apparently Dorothy winds up in Oz not by chasing Toto into a “twister” — but by pursuing her college acceptance letter. Or so it’s told in this rendition of the 1970s musical “The Wiz” by students at Boston Arts Academy.
The musical, which opens Friday night, begins with Dorothy sitting on a bench at the Roxbury Crossing T stop, arguing with a homeless man who wonders if she has “money in that envelope.” No, she replies: it’s her ticket out of the neighborhood that she “hates” despite her Aunt Em’sinsistence that she should “be proud of where she comes from.”
If art is a commentary on modern life, then the issues on the minds of students at Boston Arts Academy include fears about getting into college, street harassment, police brutality, and urban development. The opening scene, according to director Maura Tighe, stems from a long conversation with students about their fears as young people of color from an urban high school who will likely be attending predominantly white universities.
“A lot of the seniors talk about being afraid of going into a white college environment, and one of the things that people won’t understand is that you like your neighborhood,” said Tighe, a faculty member at the city’s only public high school for the arts, during a dress rehearsal Thursday afternoon. “We just wanted to ground it in their world.”
Or as Kamiya Parkin, a senior who plays Dorothy said, “At BAA, what we try to do is take stories and make them our own.” Parkin said she applied to 22 colleges and universities, most of them out of state, “so that college line hits me hard.”
And with that, this is their 2016 version of “The Wiz.” The original Tony Award-winning musical is an African-American rendition of the 1930’s classic “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” The movie version, which aired in 1978, starred Diana Ross, Michael Jackson and Richard Pryor, and is set in Harlem.
But this two-day performance at the Strand Theatre in Dorchester is quintessential Boston, an amalgamation of the experiences of students who live in the city.
Dorothy is transported to Oz via the MBTA. The Mice Squad -- a take on the transit police -- arrest the lion in the psychedelic poppy fields. Oh, and the lion? Well, his lack of courage actually stems from anxiety issues and an overbearing single mother.
“Oh, if you only knew my mama,” the lion, played by Ricky D. Pate, a junior, tells the great and powerful Wiz.
Tighe said they tried to modify the script to make it a commentary on this year’s fractious political discourse (original ideas included President Donald Trump). But it just felt too forced, too heavy for the whimsical musical. So while the contemporary flourishes abound, so too do the playful details.
The Wicked Witch of the East falls on the third rail of the Orange Line. And that man behind the curtain who — spoiler alert — turns out to be a fraud? He hails from Jamaica Plain, where he once tried his hand at selling “organic, gourmet, vegan frozen yogurt.”
Boston Arts Academy, a school of about 450 students, most of whom come from low-income homes, doesn’t have an auditorium. So every two years, it rents out the Strand Theatre for students to experience putting on a full-fledged, stage production. Students were involved with everything from lighting to orchestra music to sound design.
“We need to give the kids the bare minimum of what a rich, suburban theater program would get,” Tighe said.
Remaining show times are Saturday at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Tickets cost $10 for students and $15 for adults.