‘The Wiz’ returns: There’s no place like the Ruth Williams Bayview Opera House

Dance-competition-finalist-gets-prize-from-Matthew-Sims-a€˜The-Wiza€™-BVOH-by-Kia-Walton, ‘The Wiz’ returns: There’s no place like the Ruth Williams Bayview Opera House, Featured World News & Views
The dance competition finalist keeps that same energy on stage as she receives her prize from “The Wiz” swing cast member Matthew Sims. – Photo: Kia Shaun Walton

by Kia Shaun Walton

On Thursday evening, Jan. 25, 2024, students, parents, guardians and community members eased on down the road to gather at the Bayview Opera House (BVOH) for a pre-Broadway premiere of the beloved Black classic, “The Wiz.” The panel, co-hosted by Ashley Smiley, then program director of BVOH, and Tyra Fennell, director of communications for San Francisco Mayor London Breed, featured six artists: Music Director Paul Byssainthe, Production Stage Manager Ralph Stan Lee, Wardrobe and Makeup Designer Alan Bennett, Associate Makeup Artist Trevis Lester, and swing performers Matthew Sims and Mariah Lyttle.

As the lights dimmed in BVOH (also known as the Ruth Williams Memorial Theater), a video featuring a message from Mayor Breed chronicled the journey of “The Wiz”’s musical reboot by co-producers Lascelles Stephens and Deborah Cox. Quick cast and crew introductions were followed by virtuoso Byssainthe’s nimbly played snippets of the iconic musical’s most recognizable songs, including crowd favorite, “You Can’t Win.” 

Mariah-Lyttle-a€˜The-Wiza€™-BVOH-by-Kia-Walton, ‘The Wiz’ returns: There’s no place like the Ruth Williams Bayview Opera House, Featured World News & Views
Dorothy Understudy, Mariah Lyttle, showcases a Broadway-bound voice to the crowd singing from “The Wiz.” – Photo: Kia Shaun Walton

From school-aged first timers to those who had followed the yellow brick road in its original 1974 production, the audience reflected the Wiz’s 50-year legacy as a standout production of Black live theater. The evening featured on stage face-painting by Lester, a live singing performance from Dorothy understudy Lyttle, and a dance tutorial and competition – as humbling as it was humorous – led by Sims and Lyttle.

Tyler, mother of the 4-year-old unofficial dance competition “runner-up” shared: “I’m here because I want to give my baby an experience. She’s never seen ‘The Wiz.’ I watched it when I was a kid, so it would be nice to kind of rewatch it and get that experience again myself.” 

Lilla Pittman, coach of Feline Finesse, a Bayview Hunters Point-based dance company which “create[s] a safe haven for all young ladies to freely, creatively and artistically express themselves through dance,” took full advantage of the experience, winning the dance competition amidst excited shrieks from the company. 

Maggie Rivera, a re-entry social worker offered, “I wanted to expose [my clients] and their children to something that’s so historical for us.” 

Buzzing with music and movement from the Tony Award-winning Best Musical, the Bayview Opera House, in conjunction with Mayor Breed, is keeping the community center stage. Fennell, who kicked off the festivities in a pair of crowd pleasing ruby red shoes, shared, “We connected [‘The Wiz’] with some of our cultural centers … in the Fillmore, the African-American Arts and Cultural Complex and the Bayview Opera House to do a performance catered to youth.” She continues, “They also gave 100 tickets out to youth and seniors in San Francisco … connected with the Boys and Girls Club, Collective Impact in the Fillmore, Bayview YMCA and the senior home.” 

Paul-Byssainthe-a€˜The-Wiza€™-BVOH-by-Kia-Walton, ‘The Wiz’ returns: There’s no place like the Ruth Williams Bayview Opera House, Featured World News & Views
Paul Byssainthe, music director of “The Wiz,” plays “You Can’t Win” live at the Bayview Opera House (Ruth Williams Memorial Theater). – Photo: Kia Shaun Walton

The national tour, which began in Baltimore in September 2023, made its way to Broadway SF in January with deliberate community engagements in San Francisco. According to Fennell, the partnership was “so successful” in bridging “The Wiz” to the community that “[Broadway SF] want[s] to do this more in a systematic way.” She concludes, with crossed fingers, hopeful for a similar collaboration between Broadway SF and San Francisco’s Fillmore and Bayview Hunters Point districts for “MJ The Musical,” which depicts the making of Michael Jackson’s 1992 “Dangerous World Tour.”

Theo Ellington, interim executive director of BVOH, adds, “To bring this to Bayview, I think we’re setting the new blueprint for every single production; that [for] large scale productions that happen downtown … this should be a stop. Where they’re inspiring the next generation of playwrights, of production staff, of back of house, front of house.” 

Ellington speaks to opportunities available at BVOH highlighting artistic grants. For those “who are interested in the arts but don’t necessarily want to be front and center,” BVOH also offers technical training that can lead to sustainable careers in the arts in sound engineering and lights, boasting “a whole curriculum.” Ellington finishes, “This place means so much to this neighborhood, and we’re here to just sort of preserve it but also create opportunities where folks can see things that they may not have access to otherwise.”

Community-cast-crew-BVOH-pre-Broadway-premiere-a€˜The-Wiza€™-by-Kia-Walton, ‘The Wiz’ returns: There’s no place like the Ruth Williams Bayview Opera House, Featured World News & Views
Community members mixed with the cast and crew of “The Wiz” pose for a picture at the Bayview Opera House pre-Broadway premiere. – Photo: Kia Shaun Walton

A toe-tapping sing-along of an evening, the Bayview Opera House came alive with Black excellence represented in the arts. Harry Jamerson, a teacher at Bret Harte Elementary school, reflects, “Even though I wasn’t alive to witness the premiere of ‘The Wiz,’ there is significant historical value in having a story that showcases Black professionals and spans generations.” Jamerson concludes, “It connects young people to an experience that continues to inspire a vision of excellence.” 

Kia Shaun Walton (she/he) is a freelance journalist and educator working in the Bay Area. Kia is committed to justice, integrity and community. Please direct any inquiries to kia@sfbayview.com