Bronzeville (play)

Play by Tim Toyama and Aaron Woolfolk about an African American family moving into Bronzeville—the abandoned Little Tokyo in Los Angeles—during World War II and encountering a Japanese American in hiding.

Playwrights Toyama and Woolfolk were separately interested in doing a project about the Bronzeville period. Toyama, a Sansei from Los Angeles, was best known for his plays Visas and Virtues, about Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara's efforts to save Jews from the holocaust during World War II, and Independence Day, about a young baseball player in an American concentration camp, both of which were made into short films. Woolfolk was best known for directing the feature film The Harimaya Bridge, about an American man traveling to Japan, where his recently deceased son had been living. Ben Guillory, co-founder and artistic director of the Robey Theatre Company, a non-profit company dedicated to producing plays about the African American experience that was named after actor/musician and activist Paul Robeson, brought the two men together in 2007, and commissioned them to write Bronzeville with the support of funding from the James Irvine Foundation.[1]

Set during World War II, the play centers on the Goodwin family, who, like thousands of other African Americans, migrated to the Los Angeles area from the South drawn by the promise of jobs in wartime industries. Facing limited housing options exacerbated by racial restrictions, the Goodwins settle in Bronzeville, a African American settlement in what had been Little Tokyo before Japanese Americans had been forcibly removed to be incarcerated in inland concentration camps. Moving into a home that had been owned by the Tahara family, they are soon shocked to discover that Nisei son Henry Tahara, a young Berkeley graduate, had been hiding in the attic, refusing to obey the exclusion orders.[2] Initially divided as to what to do, the Goodwins—patriarch Jodie, who favors turning Henry in to the authorities; his wife Alice; his musician brother Felix; daughter Princess; and elderly matriarch Mama Jamie—decide to help Henry, largely swayed by the urgings of the ex-slave Mama Janie. Felix and Henry—passing for Chinese—get a job at a local nightclub, and a budding romance breaks out between Henry and Princess raising tensions. A fight at the club bring the tensions to a head and force the family to make a difficult decision.

The Robey's production of Bronzeville as directed by Guillory premiered at the Los Angeles Theatre Center on April 17, 2009, to enthusiastic reviews. With additional support from the Irvine Foundation, the Robey brought the production to Manzanar for five performances in May of 2011. The play had a second run at the LATC from June 29 to July 21, 2013 as part of "Project Bronzeville," which included an exhibition by artist Kathie Foley-Mayer, music by The Miguel Atwood-Ferguson Ensemble at the Blue Whale jazz club, and a symposium on Bronzeville featuring scholars Christopher Jimenez y West, Hillary Jenks, and Anthony Macias. Much of the cast appeared in all three productions, including Jeff Manabat as Henry, Dwain Perry as Jodie, and CeCelia Antoinette as Mama Janie.

Authored by Brian Niiya, Densho

Related Articles


For More Information

Alonso, Andrea. "Project Bronzeville: Remembering a Forgotten Era in Little Tokyo." Los Angeles Magazine, June 21, 2013.

Excerpt from 2009 production of Bronzeville.

Griffin, Cynthia E. "Bronzeville: Little Tokyo in Black and Tan." Our Weekly, June 26, 2013.

Guillory, Ben. "Bronzeville at Manzanar: Breakdown." Robey Theatre Company blog, July 11, 2011.

Reviews

Stoudt, Charlotte. Los Angeles Times, Apr. 30, 2009.

Estell, Lovell III. LA Weekly, Apr. 30, 2009.

Klugman, Deborah. LA Weekly, July 3, 2013.

Monji, Jana. "Bronzeville Needs Some Polish." Examiner.com, May 2, 2009.

Shirley, Don. LA Stage Times, July 8, 2013.

Footnotes

  1. Wenying Xu, Historical Dictionary of Asian American Literature and Theater (Blue Ridge Summit, Pa.: Scarecrow Press, 2012), 268; Aaron Woolfolk biography, The Harimaya Bridge website, http://www.theharimayabridge.com/aboutFilm/director.html; Ben Guillory, "Bronzeville at Manzanar: Breakdown," Robey Theatre Company blog, July 11, 2011, http://robeytheatrecompany.blogspot.com/search/label/manzanar, all accessed on February 6, 2014.
  2. Much of the publicity about the play claimed that it was based on a "true story." See for, instance, this flyer, http://www.robeytheatrecompany.com/pdf/bronzevillePR2013.pdf. While a number of Nikkei did ignore the exclusion orders—the most famous case is undoubtedly that of Fred Korematsu, which became a test case that went to the Supreme Court—there was nothing remotely like what is depicted in the play. The closest case is likely that of Koji Kurokawa, a thirty-eight year old San Francisco handyman who hid in his employer's basement for twenty-three days before being caught. He eventually pled guilty and was sentenced to six months in the county jail. See Peter Irons, Justice at War: The Story of the Japanese American Internment Cases (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983; Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 96–97; Pacific Citizen, June 11, 1942, p.3, http://www.pacificcitizen.org/digitalarchives/assets/images/full/PCN_19420611_003.jpg and June 18, 1942, p.2, http://www.pacificcitizen.org/digitalarchives/assets/images/full/PCN_19420618_002.jpg, both accessed on February 6, 2014.