This year we are focusing on some of the incredible pop-culture witches created and portrayed by black artists over the past 50 years.
In 1900, author L. Frank Baum began to alter the image of the witch with his wildly popular children’s book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, giving America its first famous good witch. By the mid-twentieth century, good witches became hugely popular in American media, featuring prominently in film, music, television, and comic books. While this was a notable change in the depiction of the witch, becoming a popular figure in the feminist and Neopagan movements of the 1960s and 70s, it is also important to recognize the good witches of this period were almost always exclusively white. For the majority of this century, the good witch, a newly important figure of female empowerment, was portrayed more often than not as a white woman. It was not until the latter half of this century that the depiction of a good witch began to grow, portraying a more diverse array of women. While witches portrayed by women of color finally began to enter popular culture by the end of the twentieth-century, these depictions also frequently portrayed these witches as evil or problematic figures.
In this blog series we are seeking to explore some of the unique and diverse portrayals of black witches and the incredible actresses that have taken on these roles over the past 50 years. While some of these characters unfortunately retain certain problematic characteristics, we hope this series brings attention to the work of these talented actresses and helps to open a conversation about the need for a more diverse portrayal of witches today.
The Wiz: The Super Soul Musical
Opening on October 2, 1974 in Baltimore Maryland, this dazzling musical was an adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Featuring an all-black cast, this fresh and vibrant take on Baum’s classic story included a mixture of rock, R&B, and soul music. Music and lyrics for the production were written primarily by Charlie Smalls with the production’s book written by playwright William F. Brown. Due to the success of the initial run, the musical was moved to Broadway in 1975. Featuring leading lady Stephanie Mills as Dorothy Gale, this production won seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical.
By 1978, the popularity of The Wiz inspired the production of a film adaptation. While the original musical closely followed Baum’s original story, this interpretation is set in contemporary Harlem, New York and follows 24-year-old schoolteacher, Dorothy Gale, as she is transported to the land of Oz, a place that resembles a fantastical version of New York City. Starring Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Nipsey Russell, Theresa Merritt, Thelma Carpenter, Lena Horne and Richard Pryor, the cast was also joined by Ted Ross and Mabel King, both of whom appeared in the Broadway musical and were back to reprise their roles. Though at the time the film was largely considered unsuccessful, today this adaptation is considered by some to be a cult classic.
But The Wiz was not yet done inspiring new interpretations of this classic story, as in 2015 NBC produced a live performance of the on-stage show. Filmed at the Grumman Studios in Bethpage, New York, The Wiz: Live! aired on television December 3, 2015. Influenced by both the original Broadway musical, as well as the film adaptation, this performance starred Shanice Williams as Dorothy, Amber Riley as Addaperle (the Good Witch of the North), Uzo Aduba as Glinda, Elijah Kelley as the Scarecrow, Ne-Yo as the Tin-Man, David Alan Grier as the Cowardly Lion, Mary J. Blige as Evillene (The Wicked Witch of the West), and Queen Latifah as the Wiz. In addition, Stephanie Mills, star of the 1975 musical, returned to the stage for this adaptation to play Auntie Em.
Not only is The Wiz yet another creative and magical take on the classic story of the land of Oz, but this musical is also considered to be an important gateway in musical theatre, opening the door for productions like Dreamgirls.
Follow the link below to view a clip from the 1978 film adaptation. In this scene, Diana Ross and Lena Horne sing “He’s the Wiz.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wVmMSNzLCIQ
Additionally, this second clip is from the 2015 The Wiz: Live! and features Amber Riley singing “He’s the Wizard.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZEBOe6vmync
You can also read about the fascinating and complex costumes used for this production in an excellent post by the National Museum of African American History and Culture: https://nmaahc.si.edu/explore/stories/collection/ease-down-road
American Horror Story: Coven
We have many fans of the FX series American Horror Story here at the Salem Witch Museum. Created by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, the 10th season of this amazing series is scheduled to air later this year (we think). It’s probably no surprise that we are partial to season three, Coven, which aired in 2013-14. The plot follows the descendants of the surviving witches of the Salem witch trials (OK, so it’s not historically accurate), who are gathered together for safety in a New Orleans all-girls school, Miss Robichaux’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies. The headmistress is played by Sarah Paulson; the role of her mother – the Supreme and most powerful witch of her generation – is played by the great Jessica Lange; and the truly gruesome, racist character of Madame Delphine LaLaurie, based on a real socialite from the mid-1800s who brutally tortured and killed her slaves, is played by Kathy Bates, who won a Primetime Emmy for the role.
Today’s post is all about two of our favorite actresses in Coven: Angela Bassett and Gabourey Sidibe.
Angela Bassett plays a fictionalized Marie Laveau, the legendary Voodoo Queen of New Orleans. The real Marie Laveau (circa 1801-1881) was a free woman of color, of African, Native American, and French descent, who was an herbalist, midwife, and voodoo practitioner in 19th century New Orleans. The real Marie Laveau was known during her time as a powerful woman who cared for people from all walks of life in her community. She was also the owner of a beauty parlor where she was the hairdresser for the wealthy homes of New Orleans, an aspect of her life that is depicted in Coven. In this season of American Horror Story, Marie Laveau is depicted as alive, after having sold her soul for immortality more than than 300 years ago. Although Bassett and Lange’s characters are sworn enemies, they ultimately end up working together in partnership against a cabal of witchfinders.
Angela Bassett has appeared in many films portraying real African-American women, most notably Tina Turner in What’s Love Got To Do With It, for which Bassett won the Golden Globe as Best Actress in a Comedy or Musical (the first African-American woman to win the award), and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress. Some of her other outstanding roles were in Malcolm X, Boyz In the Hood, Waiting to Exhale, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, and Black Panther. Bassett received a Primetime Emmy Award nomination for her role as Marie Laveau in Coven. She also made regular appearances in the American Horror Story series, in seasons four, five, and six, and reprised her role as Marie Laveau in season eight Apocalypse.
Actress Gabourey Sidibe made her acting debut in the 2009 movie Precious, for which she was nominated for both an Oscar and Golden Globe Best Actress award. For her amazing portrayal of a 16-year-old mother of two, she won the Independent Spirit Award for Best Female Lead.
In Coven, Gabourey Sidibe plays the role of young witch Queenie, one of the four students in attendance at the all-girls school as the season begins. A math wiz, she describes herself as a “human voodoo doll,” who is able to transfer self-inflicted pain to other people. It is revealed that Queenie, the only black member of the coven, has both voodoo blood and witch blood – she is said to be a descendant of the slave Tituba, who was the first to confess to witchcraft in 1692 Salem. The horribly racist Madame LaLaurie is brought back from the 1800s and is forced to be Queenie’s personal attendant by Lange’s character Fiona Goode (Fiona hates racists). Despite LaLaurie’s extreme racism, the rather good-hearted Queenie and LaLaurie develop a complex relationship, becoming “friends” of a sort. Eventually Queenie leaves the coven to join the voodoo faction, but returns to the coven and becomes a member of the witch council.
Sidibe returned for American Horror Story’s season four Freak Show in the role of Regina Ross, and then reprised Queenie in season five Hotel and season eight Apocalypse. She also had a role in the Showtime series The Big C, and the Fox musical series Empire, where she played the head of A&R at the Empire record label.
This is a link to a 30 second trailer for Coven: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jIXFhC-rxf4