Tag Archives: Bronzeville

Bronzeville: Culture Clash in War-time Los Angeles

11 Aug

CeCelia Antoinette, as Mama Janie, and Dana Lee, as Nahoma Tahara, in Bronzeville.

Happy Red Haired Freckled Boy With Missing Front Teeth, Laughing Retro Clipart IllustrationSo, while we were in Los Angeles this summer, we saw the play Bronzeville with Danny Glover.

Ike2And by ‘with Danny Glover’ you don’t mean to say he was in the play.

Happy Red Haired Freckled Boy With Missing Front Teeth, Laughing Retro Clipart IllustrationNo, I mean he was sitting next to us watching the play.

Ike2Ho-hum, just another day in the glamorous life of a blogging dog.

Happy Red Haired Freckled Boy With Missing Front Teeth, Laughing Retro Clipart IllustrationWe should mention that Mr. Glover is a co-founder and longtime sponsor of the Robey Theater, which staged the production, and it was a bit of a coincidence that he sat next to us.

Ike2Sherry got a little schmoozy with ol’ Danny, huh?

SherryIcon2Hmph! We had a very nice chat. He was so warm and funny–he treated everyone who came up to him like they were dearest friends.

Happy Red Haired Freckled Boy With Missing Front Teeth, Laughing Retro Clipart IllustrationYeah, it was a real privilege to meet him.

Ike2Needless to say, you guys are hoping he does one of your scripts.

Happy Red Haired Freckled Boy With Missing Front Teeth, Laughing Retro Clipart IllustrationSherryIcon2Needless to say.

Ike2Shall we talk about the play?

Happy Red Haired Freckled Boy With Missing Front Teeth, Laughing Retro Clipart IllustrationI’m for that. Bronzeville was written by Tim Toyama and Aaron Woolfolk, who were brought together by director and Robey co-founder Ben Guillory to realize Toyama’s idea for a play set in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo during World War II. According to the  Robey website, Toyama felt he needed to partner with an African American writer to bring authenticity to the story of a  black family from Mississippi who moves into the abandoned house of a Japanese family that has been evacuated to a concentration camp.

Ike2The collaboration really worked, because one of the strengths of the play is the rich portrayal of the two families and their contrasting cultures.

Happy Red Haired Freckled Boy With Missing Front Teeth, Laughing Retro Clipart IllustrationRight. The play has color and nuance that couldn’t be picked up just by reading a history book.  The story was inspired by incidents that occurred from 1942 to 1945, when Japanese-Americans were evacuated from communities throughout the West Coast, supposedly because they were suspected of loyalty to the Emperor.

Happy Red Haired Freckled Boy With Missing Front Teeth, Laughing Retro Clipart IllustrationThat image looks like something from the Jim Crow South, but the anti-Japanese feeling in the country was deep and pervasive.

Ike2Even Dr. Suess got in on the act:

JapaneseDrSuess

Happy Red Haired Freckled Boy With Missing Front Teeth, Laughing Retro Clipart IllustrationHe deeply regretted this cartoon later, but it illustrates how racist attitudes aren’t necessarily limited to the stereotypical bigot.

Ike2Most Americans have some knowledge of this shameful period in our history, but what few think about is what happened to the houses,  businesses, and neighborhoods the Japanese evacuees left behind. In the case of Little Tokyo, they were rented out by whites to black families who had migrated west to find work in factories during the war effort. Once blacks had repopulated the area, they semi-officially renamed the community ‘Bronzeville.’

Happy Red Haired Freckled Boy With Missing Front Teeth, Laughing Retro Clipart IllustrationThe way the old-timers describe it, it was like a little piece of Harlem, right there on the west coast, complete with jazz and blues clubs.

Ike2The play opens with young Hide, or Henry, Tahara, whose father was taken away weeks before as a spy. He tells a friend he won’t be joining him on the bus to Manzanar.

Happy Red Haired Freckled Boy With Missing Front Teeth, Laughing Retro Clipart IllustrationIt seems Henry has been reading a little thing called the U.S. Constitution, and he refuses to bow to the injustice of forced removal. The friend, who is sifting through the remaining inventory of his camera store, can’t talk Henry out of his rash move, but he consoles himself by giving Henry one of his best cameras for safe keeping.

Ike2With a nice use of historic slides and audio, we transition to the Goodwin family–Jodie and Alice, their daughter “Princess,” Jodie’s brother Felix, and his mother Mama Janie. Just off the truck from Mississippi, they can’t believe their good fortune at finding a fully furnished, two-bedroom house.

Happy Red Haired Freckled Boy With Missing Front Teeth, Laughing Retro Clipart IllustrationAlthough they are a bit bemused by some of the furnishings–silk wall hangings, paper lamps, and what we later learn is a Shinto shrine to Henry’s deceased mother.

Ike2Aw, you gave it away. Their biggest surprise comes when Henry, almost starved after two months of hiding in the house, comes tumbling down the stairs.

Happy Red Haired Freckled Boy With Missing Front Teeth, Laughing Retro Clipart IllustrationThe moral dilemma is whether to help Henry by allowing him to stay in what is really his house, or to protect the family by turning him in to the law.

Ike2Jodie, as the “man” of the house, wants to turn Henry in, but Mama Janie, who was born into slavery, reminds Jodie of the family history. She tells the story of an uncle who escaped slavery, only to be turned in by a law-abiding citizen so, in the end, he could be lynched.

Happy Red Haired Freckled Boy With Missing Front Teeth, Laughing Retro Clipart IllustrationJodie acquiesces to his mother’s wishes, of course, and he gets one of the best laughs of the play when he complains that he can never win an argument with his mother because she always trumps him with some story bout slavery.

Ike2Yeah, there’s actually a lot of humor in the play, considering the heavy subject matter. The cast is as good with the comic moments as they are with the dramatic ones.

Happy Red Haired Freckled Boy With Missing Front Teeth, Laughing Retro Clipart IllustrationAnother point of contention is the traditional shrine, mentioned earlier, to Henry’s mother. It’s quite prominent in the living room, and it doesn’t sit too well with the very Christian Mama Janie, or her daughter-in-law, Alice. Mama Janie gets a little freaked-out, too, when Henry performs one of his father’s favorite prayers to help the garden grow. But these apparent differences also highlight the similarities between the two families–the love of gardening, the respect for elders, and the deep religious feeling.

Ike2Henry becomes a part of the family, even contributing to the household when Felix gets him a job as photographer at the jazz club where he plays. But this causes problems, too.

DSC00518Iman Milner & Jeff Manabat.

Happy Red Haired Freckled Boy With Missing Front Teeth, Laughing Retro Clipart IllustrationPrincess becomes a little too close with Henry for Jodie’s comfort, and when she, Henry, and Felix get mixed up in a big fight at the club, Jodie does what he wanted to do from the beginning–he turns Henry in.

Ike2Ultimately, Henry can only avoid the concentration camp–and show his loyalty to America–by volunteering for one of the Japanese war units, many of which, like Henry’s, saw action in Italy.

Happy Red Haired Freckled Boy With Missing Front Teeth, Laughing Retro Clipart IllustrationThe play builds to the tragedy we feared from the beginning–Henry’s death. But the really heart-rending moment comes when, after the war is over, Henry’s father returns to reclaim his home.

Ike2No blacks were allowed to buy the houses they moved into during the war, so once the Japanese were released from the camps, the blacks were evicted. This is when many African-Americans in Southern California moved to Compton and Watts.

Happy Red Haired Freckled Boy With Missing Front Teeth, Laughing Retro Clipart IllustrationThe Goodwins are packing as fast as they can to avoid any confrontation with Mr. Tahara, but when he arrives–bent and shuffling like a man older than his years–instead of anger, he comes with gratitude for all the kindnesses the Goodwins showed his son, which Henry had written to him about.

Ike2The guilt the Goodwins feel over the betrayal is as unbearable as the sadness Mr. Tahara feels over the death of his son. As good as the rest of the cast is, when Dana Lee comes in for that final scene, he steals the show.

Happy Red Haired Freckled Boy With Missing Front Teeth, Laughing Retro Clipart IllustrationAnd that’s saying something, because CeCelia Antoinette as Mama Janie, Jeff Manabat as Henry, and all the rest of the cast are excellent. But when Dana Lee breaks down and cries, “I just want my boy back!” that was the moment for me.

SherryIcon2May I add my two cents?

Happy Red Haired Freckled Boy With Missing Front Teeth, Laughing Retro Clipart IllustrationPlease.

SherryIcon2You know, generally, I prefer movies to the stage, but this performance showed me that a movie is no match for a really good stage production. When Henry’s father turns his back to the audience and prays–chanting and clapping his hands for all he has lost and gained–though his prayer is unintelligible to us,  we in the audience really feel it because, in being there, we are eye witnesses in a way we can’t be watching a movie.

Happy Red Haired Freckled Boy With Missing Front Teeth, Laughing Retro Clipart IllustrationAnd we’re with the Goodwins as, one by one, they join in–even the guilt-ridden Jodie–clapping and rubbing their hands in unison with Mr. Tahara.

SherryIcon2Metaphorically, we can never see things the same again.  Just as the actors have tuned their backs on the audience, we too must turn our backs on the old way of seeing things.

Ike2Well said!

Happy Red Haired Freckled Boy With Missing Front Teeth, Laughing Retro Clipart IllustrationUnfortunately, Bronzeville’s run at the Robey has come to an end, and I don’t know of anywhere else in the country that it might be booked. So, yeah, you’ve read this long review, and now you can’t even see the play. But we were so moved by the performance, and so taken by the history it reveals, that we wanted to share it. We hope other theater companies will pick it up, because it is a story that needs to be told, and a story that any person with a heart will want to see.

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