Avilon Tate was just five years old when he stepped onto the yellow brick road of Oz at the Community Theatre of Greensboro. Now Tate, a UNC Greensboro senior, is easing on down a much larger yellow brick road in the Pre-Broadway national tour of “The Wiz.”
“I love ‘The Wiz’ and have been watching the movie since I was a kid,” says Tate, who is part of the ensemble and an understudy for the Tin Man. “It’s a fun story and being on stage, singing the songs, dancing to them, it fills you up for sure.”
The original Broadway production of “The Wiz: The Super Soul Musical Wonderful Wizard of Oz” premiered in 1975 and is a retelling of L. Frank Baum’s children’s novel “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” told through the lens of Black culture. The 1975 production won seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical and was adapted into a film in 1978 starring Diana Ross as Dorothy Gale and Michael Jackson as The Scarecrow.
“It is such a great honor to carry on the legacy of ‘The Wiz,’” says Tate. “We are just living our best lives out on stage, being able to perform this iconic show.”
THE STAGE PLAYGROUND
Tate grew up in Greensboro and has been performing for his entire life, including at “The Pointe! Studio of Dance,” owned by his mother. He expanded his skills doing community theater and even trained in New York City. After graduating from Grimsley High School, he made the decision to attend UNCG and study drama in the College of Visual and Performing Arts.
“Choosing UNCG was the best decision I ever made,” says Tate. “The coordinator of the musical theatre program, Dominick Amendum, is amazing. He knows exactly what to do and is still part of the theatre industry, so his knowledge is current.”
While studying at UNCG, the LINK Program, a non-profit organization that helps jump-start careers for performing arts students, helped Tate connect to an agent, and he quickly began auditioning in New York. He first booked a swing role in the company of “Aladdin,” but decided it might be too much for his debut. But he didn’t wait long before receiving another offer in the national tour ensemble of “Mean Girls.”
“‘Mean Girls was the perfect introduction to touring,” he says. “It was the best experience because I learned so much about myself while being able to do eight shows a week. I met some fantastic, talented people as well.”
While touring with “Mean Girls,” Tate continued to take UNCG classes online – something he says has been a challenge while hopping from city to city. His plan was to come back to Greensboro in-person after it wrapped up, but he was called to the world of Oz instead.
ENTERING OZ (AND BROADWAY)
Even though Tate is an understudy for the Tin Man role, he’s had the opportunity to play the character three times.
“It was nerve-wracking at first, of course, but I had the most fun that night,” he says. “It was so free. It was like I was on a playground, and I got to make this role come to life.”
In March 2024, “The Wiz” will open at the Marquis Theater on Broadway in New York City – a first for Tate and the first time in 40 years that the show will be on Broadway. Tate says the production is giving a lot of new performers an opportunity in the musical theatre world – he’s one of several performers making their Broadway debut in this show – but it also features seasoned professionals like singer Deborah Cox. Emmy Award winner Wayne Brady will also make an appearance as The Wiz in January. The show is choreographed by JaQuel Knight, best known for choreographing Beyoncé’s famed “Single Ladies” music video.
“This show is a lot of people’s entryway into the musical theatre world and so I feel like we are helping each other out,” says Tate. “It’s great to hear the support when we get to each city. People are really loving the show and raving about it.”
PREPARED BEYOND MEASURE
While Tate loves “The Wiz” and is excited to be part of the iconic production – there’s another Broadway show that he has his sights set on in the future.
“I’m obsessed with ‘Wicked,’ I’ve always loved the show and I would love to play Fiero, but I would even love to be in the ensemble,” Tate says.
Tate has looked to some of the performers from “Wicked” for inspiration, including Jessica Vosk, who portrayed Elphaba; Jarrod Spector, known for his work in “Beautiful: The Carol King Musical;” and Taye Diggs, best known for his work onstage in the original production of “Rent” and in films such as “How Stella Got Her Groove Back.”
“I had the chance to work with Jessica and Jarrod. To see the way they study the role, attack their vowels, and just how pure their voices are, it was very wonderful,” says Tate. “Taye Diggs does musical theatre, but he’s also in movies. He does it all and I love that, especially for a Black man.”
As Tate continues to finish his UNCG studies on the road, he says the University has prepared him well for this moment in his career.
“UNCG has trained my voice far beyond measure, they’ve trained my mind and my body,” says Tate. “What they do is unique, because they start off with acting and a lot of musical theater programs wait until you’ve been there for some time to start acting. It’s a lot of work, and they give you a lot of tasks to start. But when you get out into the world, you’re ready.”
Story by Avery Craine Powell, University Communications
Photography by Martin W. Kane
Additional photography courtesy of Avilon Tate