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February 23, 2017

Taking The Stage

Producer Don Mischer's reflections on producing Taking the Stage: African American Music and Stories that Changed America, exclusively for TelevisionAcademy.com.

Don Mischer
  • General Colin Powell and the Tuskegee Airmen.

    ABC
  • President Barack and Michelle Obama

    ABC
  • ABC
  • ABC
  • Don Mischer

    Don Mischer

January 12th, 2017.  At 6pm in Los Angeles Taking The Stage began airing on ABC, in the eastern half of the country.

My assistant called me at 6:30 and said, "You better check out what's happening on Twitter."  I did.  Our show was trending #1.

"Man, that #TakingTheStage special TOOK ME THERE. So proud of my heritage, so blessed to be black, and PROUD."

"I'm finally watching #TakingTheStage and I'm literally crying"

"#TakingTheStage wonderful show & reminder of our survival and legacy not only as African Americans but AMERICANS! #Loveisinneedoflove"

As television producers we always try to create shows that are entertaining and at times emotional. But every now and then, the elements in and around a production can come together in a "perfect storm" that resonates with viewers in extraordinary and unexpected ways. 

Over the course of my career I have had the honor to be involved in several -- Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" moonwalk on Motown 25, Muhammad Ali raising the Olympic Torch at the Centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta, and Prince's extraordinary halftime performance in the rain at Super Bowl XLI.

That was also the case with Taking the Stage: African American Music and Stories that Changed America.  We had been working on the show for a year, yet events in the Fall of 2016 made it much more relevant than we had ever anticipated.  Unlike most shows we produce, this show affected people in a profound way.

#TakingTheStage was one of the best displays of black excellence. So well done. I need them to do this show like every three months

#TakingTheStage I danced for 2 hours… Cried and laughed too. Thank you sooo much for sharing such God given talent. Amazing.

Almost a year earlier I got a call from the legendary Quincy Jones, and Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, to talk about a show that would celebrate the opening of the museum.  They told me about the century long struggle to get the museum built, and the historical significance of a Smithsonian African American Museum taking its rightful place of honor on the National Mall in Washington…. the sacred ground of America's history.

It was important to the founders of the Museum that our show be "an American story" and not just an "African American story." They wanted viewers to understand how African Americans have influenced, inspired, and challenged all Americans, making the United States of America what it is today.  And that whatever the color of our skin, help us all appreciate how our stories, our histories, and our cultures are an interwoven tapestry.  That we are all connected.

The Tuskegee Airmen may have been a segregated black group of pilots, but what they did in combat over Germany in WWII – destroying 200 Nazi aircraft, winning 112 aerial victories and 96 distinguished Flying Crosses was for all Americans.

When a distinctive sound from a little black neighborhood in Detroit swept a captivated America off its feet and spread around the world, Motown was forever woven into our musical heritage.

And when Marvin Gaye asked us "What's Going On?" he was speaking to every single one of us, not one particular group.

One of our initial decisions, in working with the Museum and ABC, was to use entertainment to "tell the story."  It was not to be a documentary on the history of African Americans, or the story of the black experience in America, but a celebration of the cultural contributions of black Americans in music, dance, comedy, writing, photography, theater, art and sports.

For me, it became a personal journey of discovery.  As I started to comb through Museum content, reading and listening and visiting the archives, I found it immensely compelling.  Small artifacts, like a handwritten Bill of Sale for a slave sold in 1826, deeply moved me:

Her name was Polly.  She was six years old and was sold for $600.

She had a yellow complexion and deep brown eyes.

Captivated by the project, I also felt a strong sense of pressure.  There was much more at stake than just having to create an entertaining television special.

First, there was working with Quincy… a man who 'walked the walk' through decades of civil rights struggles.  Who began as an 18-year-old trumpet player with Lionel Hampton, in a very segregated America.  He lived it all, through the turbulence of the 60s, right up to the swearing in of the first black President of the United States.  Through all those years, Quincy has been a strong voice in the movement, and at the same time really "cool."

And, considering the events in the last few months of 2016, it seemed like a story that needed to be told. Our nation had become incredibly polarized during a divisive, ugly Presidential campaign.   We were experiencing cynicism, rancor, and doubt and seemed to be searching for what it really means to be an "American."

As things began to take real shape it became apparent that while we might make a wonderful television show, it could also resonate on a deeper level.  The remarkable stories, music, and artistic contributions all reflected a perseverance, resourcefulness, and resilience required by African Americans to survive and thrive in America.  While the show was about African Americans, this resilient spirit is fundamentally American.

And the final element to this "perfect storm" was that it became one of the final public appearances of President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, as this aired just 8 days before the Inauguration. 

When we produce a show we love watching the faces of the audience.  They are the true barometer of whether the show is taking them on the ride we planned.  So it was beyond gratifying to see the President and First Lady sitting in their box at The Kennedy Center, having a wonderful time, dancing, lip-syncing, laughing and crying.  It was the perfect capper to a career moment.

For us, this was much more than producing a television special.  We took a journey in putting this show together, and we hope that in some small way Taking the Stage helped viewers to know more, understand more, and feel more.  And, perhaps, appreciate how we got to today….and what we must take away from the past to carry with us as we make our way into the future.

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