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‘Taking the Stage’ Producer Don Mischer on How the Special ‘Shines a Light on a 400-Year History’

Usher, Stevie Wonder, and Will Smith are among the all-star cast that gathered to perform for, speak on, and celebrate the recent unveiling of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 24.

The celebration was documented with a special, “Taking the Stage: African American Music and Stories That Changed America,” that will air on ABC on Thursday night, and will pay tribute to the ways in which African-American culture and entertainment has made an impact in American society.

Each act at the event either spoke on a particular aspect or artifact of African-American culture that is presented in the museum, or performed a piece of spoken word, song, or dance that is representative of an influential person, group of people, or moment in African-American history. Usher channeled icon James Brown in his performance, and Mary J. Blige performed a tribute to widely celebrated 20th century singer Marian Anderson.

Producer of the event Don Mischer said that although the special traces important points of African-American history, it is not a documentary. “We are using the museum as a jumping off point for pieces in entertainment and culture to make a difference,” Mischer told Variety.

“You’re going to understand the incredible contributions of African-Americans to the culture of the world,” Mischer said of the event. “Knowing where people came from helps you better appreciate where they are, and what their attitudes are today. I’m hoping it will also do that — it shines a light on a 400-year history.”

Here, Mischer speaks with Variety about the purpose and significance of the special and what to expect. The special will air at 9 p.m. on Thursday on ABC.

How did you and Quincy Jones originally connect and decide on creating this special?

The museum has been something that has been talked about for a hundred years, and nothing ever happened. And finally, President Bush convinced Congress to get the funding. So they formed a board and Lonnie Bunch was the founding director of the museum and Quincy was one of the board members. When they began to build the museum, they had decided it would be good to have something to bring this to the attention of the American people. Quincy and I have worked together on projects before, and Quincy turned to us and asked, “Would you help us do this?” We spent a little over a year on it.

When you were booking performance acts for the event, what was that process like? 

I write a lot of letters and when I reached out to the folks, I wanted them to understand that this is going to be a historical moment. It’s going to be a significant moment. A museum that is focused on the African-American experience in America will now be opening up on what is the sacred ground of American history which is that National Mall of the capital and the White House. It was relatively easy to make the case about the significance of this, and it’s a lot of hard work. Some people we went to with specific ideas and others we discussed how we might contribute to a particular aspect of African-American culture that we wanted to represent on the program. It was a long process. Everybody really wanted to do it, but scheduling becomes really difficult. Denzel [Washington] really wanted to be a part of it but he couldn’t make it. But we were very fortunate. We had a great cast, and I think that everyone who came there walked away from a big part of that event with a deep appreciation for the African-American experience for 400 years in this country.

You mentioned that you had a few specific people in mind with some ideas of what you wanted to represent in the program. Can you share who some of those people are?

For example, we were hoping we could get somebody to be a James Brown, because he had such impact on pop culture. We knew that Usher could do it, so we went up to Usher with that specific thing in mind… It took some time because Usher wasn’t sure if he wanted to do that, he wasn’t sure if he could do it, and it ended up becoming one of the electric performances of the evening. Another example is that when it came to telling the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, we all thought Tom Hanks is the real historian of wars and battles and struggles that have been fought in this country. He’s produced many incredible series regarding that, so we felt like Tom Hanks up there, telling the story of the Tuskegee Airmen would make it that much more engaging and relevant.

How were you able to get President Obama on board, and what was it like having him there, especially with it being his last moments in the White House?

I must say that the museum did most of the work with the White House — by the time we came on board and were, in fact, hired, we were told at that point that already the president and the first lady would be available on the night of Friday the 23rd to tape the show. We had done another show at the White House back in April for the International Jazz Festival called White House Jazz. It was really great to sit and watch him up there in the box and I think he really had a good time. I think it’s kind of a wonderful way to end his incredible presidency. One of his last public events will be his attendance at the show, which will be shown on television, just a few days before the presidency changes over. Just to see him up there, watching and singing along, really having a great time, just felt really good.

Do you think the show holds a message of heightened importance given certain factors of our current political and social climate?

The show is basically a celebration of African-American cultural contributions to our society. When you look at what they’ve brought to music, entertainment, sports, and comedy, and how in each one of these genres, they were able to use these entertainment genres to make a statement — they broke ground. The comics were able to make you laugh while also making you understand what they were going through and what their families were going through. And in a sense, they kind of spoke truth to power… In this day that we have today, there’s a lot of sensitivity about racial issues, and I do think and certainly hope — I don’t know, but I hope — that people who watch this show understand the roots of so much of what black America has brought to our culture and to world culture. They’re going to be able to understand a little bit more what their experience has been like for centuries.

This is not a documentary on African-American history. We are using the museum as a jumping-off point for pieces in entertainment and culture to make a difference. For Muhammad Ali, we got his original boxing gloves inside here. For jazz in the 1920’s, Louis Armstrong’s trumpet is in this beautiful case in the museum and we take a shot of that. We have a piece on Marian Anderson, who in 1939 was refused to be allowed to sing at Constitution Hall because she was black. Eleanor Roosevelt arranged to have her sing at the Lincoln Memorial and we have the dress she wore that day. We use these little pieces in 15-20 second segments to set up the performance. The performance of what Marian Anderson sang is all entertainment and was performed beautifully by Mary J. Blige.

Are there any surprises that viewers can expect going into the show?

One of the most eloquent and moving parts of this program, I would say, is what Stevie Wonder says at the end. I think it is beautiful, eloquent; but also strong and makes an incredible point and helps give a better understanding about what’s going on right now through this period in our country’s history.

Do you plan on either making this an annual special, or bringing it back sometime in the future to bring awareness to its purpose?

That’s an idea we’ve thought about. I think we want to see how this program does and how people respond to it. There is so much incredible material in this museum, it’s remarkable, and you could do some sort of program on a regular basis. It’s something that we are writing up, but haven’t yet talked to anyone about it.

When you go to the museum, you start flying floors underground. The very bottom level of the museum is basically where slavery began, and you see holes in slave ships with shackles attached to them, some of which are smaller than a child’s hands and feet. You see the first shack that slaves inhabited in Mississippi. As you go up through the museum you go up through time, and you go through a period where you see the music and jazz, and all that; the time where Marian Anderson sang at the Lincoln Memorial, when World War II happened and all of that. And the ’60’s, which is the decade most people feel we made our most progress as a nation in civil rights, that’s the first time we break into sunlight, because it’s all dark up to that point on the first five floors, coming up through the museum. There’s a lot of  wonderful, wonderful things.

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