One evening about four years ago, Lovail Long and his bunkmate, Salahuddin Mahdi, were working to develop a writing project about their hometown when the 1978 film The Wiz came on TV. “A light bulb came off, and within an hour, we started putting things together,” says Long.
And that is how the new musical The Giz, a go-go adaptation of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, came to be. Excited by the possibilities, Long recalls, he called his old friend, Backyard Band leader Anwan “Big G” Glover, and with Big G’s encouragement, Long and Mahdi decided to move forward with the venture.
Both Long and Mahdi were incarcerated in a Georgia prison at the time—Long on drug trafficking charges, Mahdi on aggravated assault—so progress was slow. Still, they worked on a plot synopsis and envisioned which go-go artists might play specific roles. With a contraband prepaid cell phone, Long made an initial connection with established theater director Vernon Williams III, who impressed Long with both his extensive resume and the bow-tie he wore in the photographs Long found online.
The Giz will be performed on August 19 at the MGM National Harbor; Long plans to take it on the road and eventually mount a longer local run. Its ruby red slippers planted firmly in the DMV, The Giz celebrates go-go culture with a cast that features several of the music’s luminaries, including EU’s Gregory “Sugar Bear” Elliott as The Giz, a role originally written for Chuck Brown.
Despite its title, The Giz was inspired more by Victor Fleming’s 1939 The Wizard of Oz film than by any productions of The Wiz. The new musical relates the adventure of 18-year-old Dottie, who lives in North Carolina with her maternal grandparents and yearns to attend Howard University. Dottie, who just might be Chuck Brown’s daughter, is taking out the trash when a well-timed storm whisks her away to Munchkin Land, right by the D.C. border of Prince George’s County.
If the script is any indication, there is a distinctly D.C. feel to this story: Dottie and her growing group of traveling companions seek a Chocolate City—not an emerald one. There are shoutouts to Eddie Leonard’s and mumbo sauce, love for homegrown basketball star Kevin Durant, and the Wicked Witch of Southeast is a despised gentrifier. As one munchkin explains, “She knocked down our homes and kicked us out of the Chocolate City, pushing us further east into these parts.”
With an abundance of humor and spot-on insight, The Giz is informed by the go-go community’s struggle for acknowledgement and support. Spend a few minutes with the remarkably forthright Long, and it becomes clear that Dottie’s search for a way home also reflects his singular journey.
Now 48, Long grew up in both P.G. County and Southeast D.C., a devoted go-go fan who hoped to someday join the Junkyard band. For as long as he can remember, go-go unified people. “Go-Go was always the one thing that could bring my family together,” he says. Still, somehow, his life veered in the wrong direction. By age 14, he was on the streets.
In 2009, he began serving a five-year sentence in federal prison. “They really had no evidence for what they locked me up for,” he says. “But by that time I had done so much stuff that it was time for me to go. I knew I might as well go ahead and take the plea.”
Long used his incarceration to contemplate how to turn his life around. “I started looking around for things that I could do when I came home,” he says. “So many people were throwing parties and dealing with a go-go band, but that felt like it was too close to the streets. I wanted to change my environment.”
For Williams, the theater director who worked with Long on the 2017 drama Stranger in My House before signing on to co-write and direct The Giz, there is nothing incidental about Long’s career path. “Lovail’s previous lifestyle when he was out in the streets made him ready for this. He knows how to make contacts, he knows how to put things together, he knows how to negotiate. He’s a natural-born producer,” says Williams.
“Being incarcerated saved his life, and now that he’s out, everything he’s had in him all along has prepared him for now,” adds Williams. “A lot of times, you have to go through certain things to prepare you for your purpose, and I believe he’s now prepared for his purpose. While he was incarcerated, it was just a dream. And now his dream is coming to life, so that in itself is a great triumph.”
It’s the middle of the day on a balmy summer Saturday, and a handful of the production’s 120-plus cast members are rehears- ing at dance studio in Temple Hills. Dottie (the lovely London Savoy), Scarecrow (tap dancer Cartier Williams, no relation to Vernon), and The Chaperone WB (WPGC’s Tony Redz) have just encountered the decidedly distaff Tin Ma, played by co- median Niki Moore. A collection of friends and other cast members watch the proceedings. Among them is Trina Boo, who describes herself as “D.C.’s Lady Gaga” and landed the role of the Candy Lady when she brought her grandson to an audition. She is wearing fabulously colorful custom-made The Giz boots.
Williams works the group through a section of go-go-inspired call-and-response, and then explains his approach to script fidelity: “You don’t have to say exactly what the script says, but you gotta say what it say.” They all nod.
Outside, filming is in process for The Giz 24/7, a behind-the-scenes promotional video produced by Long and Williams, who are tapping social media to help fill the MGM’s 3,000 seats. DJ Flexx, who plays The Giz’s Grand Marshall of Southeast, is talking about the significance of this production. “With all the gentrification and everything that’s going on in D.C. now, this play is so needed because it talks about the roots of the city in a way that everybody that’s been here understands,” he says. “Chuck Brown created an entire genre of music, and we can’t let that go. For so many people, this is a part of their lives.
“This play supports our city, and it supports our culture, and it’s so important that we don’t lose our culture,” he says. “We cannot lose our culture. You can take anything, but you cannot take go-go from us.”
The displacement of African-American families who have lived in D.C. for generations is a crucial theme in The Giz, which gives voice to resentments of those pushed aside. “Gentrification is something that’s actually happening in the city, and something that’s being talked about,” says Williams. “There are residents who will be at this play who have suffered through gentrification, who had to move from the city to Maryland or other parts. It’s a real-life issue that people are actually going through. To make that part of the show—to keep speaking about it and keep the conversation going—was important.”
As the first theatrical production at the MGM, The Giz gains a certain cachet. “I think it’s important for the city to have a connection to what is and what used to be,” says Frank “Scooby” Marshall, go-go artist and Cowardly Lion actor. “There’s the hope that in the future, we can find a happy medium and have everything that was and everything that is co-exist.”
Scooby’s band Sirius Company will perform as the house band for The Giz. Other go-go artists performing in the show include Scooby’s fellow vocalist in the Chuck Brown Band, KK Donelson, who is Brown’s daughter and will be presenting a tribute to her father. And Tony Redz, who plays WB, was previously with the band Optymistic Tribe. (Long’s old cell-mate Mahdi, who is credited as a co-writer, has a part as one of the production’s crows.)
The Giz includes a video tutorial on go-go, starting with its origins in the mid-’70s all the way up to today’s bounce beat bands. “Those who were born and raised in D.C. can reminisce, and maybe learn something they didn’t know before,” says Vernon Williams. “And for people who are not from here, this show will definitely teach you about go-go and its history.”
In a number titled “The Pocket,” the Scarecrow faces off against a dynasty of local percussion players: Milton “Go-Go Mickey” Freeman and his sons Mickey “Mick III” Freeman and Brion “BeeJay” Scott, all on congas. This segment will underscore the ways that both go-go and tap descend from traditional African percussion. “Tap comes from the Motherland—the roots and basics of it are African,” says Cartier Williams. “The connection I’m making with go-go is pure, because I’m doing go-go with my feet.”
Long reports that The Giz is nearly sold out, something a couple of guys in dingy prison uniforms could only dream of just a few years ago. “We want to see four generations of Washingtonians coming together for this show and bring the kids back to our community and our culture,” says Long. “We also want to create another stream of revenue for our go-go legends to help preserve go-go.”
Like go-go founder Chuck Brown, who learned to play guitar while serving time in Lorton and later, in what was surely a divinely delivered redemption, gave his community the tremendous gift of a music they could call their own, Long has found his way.
“This is something that Chuck Brown would have loved to see, the different ways that people are finding to keep our cul- ture thriving,” says Vernon Williams. “He would have loved to see this, loved to see that his creation still has wings.”
The Giz runs until Sunday, August 19 at The Theater at MGM National Harbor, 101 MGM National Ave, Oxon Hill, Md. $63.64-$145.46. (844) 646-6847. mgmnationalharbor.com.