My daughter Harriet is four and is a huge Wizard of Oz fan, so I thought she would enjoy taking in the Ensemble Theater's free production of The Wiz at Miller Outdoor Theatre Saturday night. (We skipped the brutal line for covered tickets.)
I had heard that showtime was 7 p.m. and since my apartment is only a few blocks from the park, we decided to make an afternoon of it. She put on her bathing suit and her sparkly red tennis shoes and we headed down to the park at about five. After an hour or so of playing in the fountains between the cenotaph and the pedal-boat lake and a few minutes of trying to feed the obese, indifferent ducks, we rode the train and then headed over to the hill to stake out a spot.
By then it was a little past seven. We needed dinner, and in a lapse I would soon keenly regret, I had forgotten to bring some food from home or an outside restaurant. Any restaurant would have done. I order the two of us nachos, a Frito pie, and a hot dog, and in the end, only the Frito pie proved remotely edible. The hot dog was gray and lukewarm and rested in a bun that was stale as a week-old cheeseball; the nachos were of the sort only Beavis and Butthead could love. There are gas stations all over Houston that serve better food than that crap, and Hermann is Houston's signature urban park. This shoddy prison fare is the best Hermann can do? And how did these jokers get the license for the concession there?
After tossing the lion's share of that crap in the garbage, Harriet and I made our way to the rapidly filling hill to stake out our spot. It was by then about ten past seven and there was little activity on the stage. We found a little area to spread out our blanket -- well, actually a towel -- and sat down. All around us, better-prepared people were eating Popeye's, KFC, bags of snacks from home, and sipping wine. Next time, I vowed, I would be better prepared. Meanwhile, Harriet was taking in the crowd, which was probably about 75 percent black. "SO DAD," she declared in her usual thunderous manner, "THIS PLAY IS THE SAME AS THE WIZARD OF OZ, ONLY JUST WITH BLACK PEOPLE?"
"Yes, sweetie," I said. "Inside voice, please."
About 7:15, some people came to the podium and announced that an awards ceremony would be taking place immediately. When the first award was presented to the "lighting technician of the year," I knew it would be a long ceremony, and it was. At about eight, a man with a Caribbean accent came to the podium and cracked that there was a rumor going around that The Wiz would be performed sometime that night.
And as it happened, eight was the scheduled start time, not seven as I had thought. But it was nonetheless a good thing we had gotten there that early, as I have never -- in 25 years of going to shows at Miller -- seen the hill that packed. Blankets covered virtually every blade of grass by the time the show started.
A little later, another man -- this year's Ensemble Theater actor of the year, I believe -- came out and started talking to the crowd about New Orleans and Houston. He told the crowd to hang tight -- that The Wiz couldn't start until sundown, as the play's lighting needed full darkness to shine most clearly. And that would be 30 more minutes. Harriet and I picked our way through the crowd to the back of the hill, where she whiled away a few minutes rolling down the slope. With great difficulty we made our way back to our towel -- by now ringed even tighter by other people -- at about 8:25.
Somebody else came out to talk about something else. Harriet was starting to lose it. "Put The Wiz on, now" I heard her grumble. And at about 8:40, if memory serves, they did.
"DOROTHY LOOKS ALMOST WHITE, DADDY," Harriet declaimed. "I MEAN, A LITTLE BIT."
"Inside voice, Hattie," I said...(We were a long way from the stage.)
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We didn't make it too long after that. Harriet was a little disappointed in the tornado -- rendered in the production as an artistic dance comprised of four storm devils -- but she laughed out loud at some of the lines of the bumbling Addaperle the Good Witch of the North. And we stuck around for their first steps down the yellow brick road, but by then it was about 9:15 and she was ready to go.
As we made our way to the light rail, a quartet of thirtysomething black women fell in with us and were fussing over Harriet's little red shoes. They said they had wanted to see The Wiz but were frustrated by the crowd. One of them said she had a better idea.
"We're going to the Cheesecake Factory," she said. Sounded good to me, I said. "And I'm gonna get tipsy," the woman replied. "I don't usually drink, but I'm goin' to tonight." Sounds like a plan, I said. "And I'm gonna do it all on my ex-husband's money," she cackled. "All of us are!"
So you see the Oz at the end of all our yellow brick roads takes many forms. For our part, it was one light-rail stop away where a smoothie and bedtime stories awaited.