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Playing The Wiz

This story contains elements of racial profiling and mildly strong language

I am currently playing Reed Three (flute, clarinet, soprano and tenor saxes) in the pit orchestra for a high school production of the Wiz. It is a very old, very conservative church school, originally founded as a boy’s college preparatory school in 1849. In recent years, a companion girl’s school has been added, with shared facilities for the arts and some other elective courses.

Saturday evening’s performance was really good - well, as good as WASPS trying to "do" black ghetto can be.

Those kids are so closeted and sheltered, they really haven't a clue.

The kid playing the whining lion had no concept of what it means to grow up in a broken family, where the father is in jail for some relatively minor drug offense, and the mother is working two jobs, trying to make ends meet. He had no idea what it is like to come home day after day to a run-down tenement house owned by city housing authorities with no budget for repairs. He certainly had no concept of what it is like to be unable to play outside after school, because it is too dangerous being out in the open.

Even the black kid paying the Wiz was clueless. Oh, he wore a James Brown "processed" wig, and he tried, but he clearly had never been to a fundamentalist black church, where the preacher really knew how to get the congregation rocking.

I kept thinking about a Sunday back in 1965, when Pete "The Snatch" woke me. We called him that because he could go into a town where there were no women to be had anywhere, and pick someone up. As we used to say crassly, "Pete could always find snatch." 

I was sound asleep when he rudely awakened me at seven o'clock on a Sunday morning. I was still about half drunk from the previous night's partying, and the last thing I wanted to see was daylight. I especially didn’t want to see it before about noon.

He said to me, "Com'on B----. Roll your ass out and put on a coat and tie. We're going to church."

"What? Church? Are you out of your mind?"

"No, Man, I am serious. You and I are going over to the Portsmouth Pentecostal AME. They have a preacher there who gets things ROCKING. The organist plays a mean Hammond B3. They have bass and drums laying down a nasty groove, and a choir that won't quit. Sometimes there's a scary good tenor man there, too. You play tenor like a white boy. It’s high time you heard some real gospel. So you’re coming with me. You gotta check it out."

Well - to make a long story short, I went, and he was right.

I was a little nervous though. When we walked in, every face turned and looked at us. We were the only Caucasians within probably a mile, but no one said a word, except one mother, who said to her daughter, “Move over Sonya, and give the men a little room to sit on the pew with us.”

After the usual church preliminaries; thanks to God, announcements about events for the following week, recent hospitalizations and such, the sermon began.

The preacher started out real slow and calm, speaking in measured, somber tones. But as he warmed up, he began getting a little more animated. After about half an hour, he was shouting, and repeating short catch phrases, like “Y’all gotta get right! I mean RIGHT! With God.”

“Don’t be giving lip service, now. You gotta FEEL it! FEEL it in your soul!”

And the congregation was egging him on with punctuated shouts of “AMEN!” and “Right on, Brother!”

Just about the time I thought he was gonna begin to run out of steam, that Hammond B3 broke in with a resounding chord using full keyboard, pedals, and with the Leslie cranked up. Then the bass and drummer kicked in, the choir started singing, and the preacher and congregation joined in with them. They made a sound that you would think would raise the roof and blow the walls out of that little church.

They went right from one rousing anthem straight into another with no break, and the congregation was clapping, singing along, and dancing in their seats.

It was the happiest church service I had ever attended. I kept thinking about how they used to draw cartoon steam engines rocking back and forth, like the one on Soul Train. And I could picture the whole building rocking like that.

The service went on four over four hours, and when it was over, I was a little saddened that it had come to an end.

I don't remember the point of the sermon, nor any of the hymns, but I will never forget the way it felt. When the service was over, the Congregationalists nearest me and Pete gave us a hug, and said “Welcome to our church.”

That's what these kids performing in The Wiz need to experience. They probably still wouldn't have any soul, but at least they'd have an idea what they should be striving for.

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