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Milwaukee's Vibrant 1950s African American Community

First Stage remembers with world premiere of 'Welcome To Bronzeville'

Jan. 3, 2017
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Photo credit: Lindsay Abendschein

The land from today’s Martin Luther King Drive to 12th Street, and from Juneau Avenue north to Brown Street, was a kind of Promised Land in the mid-19th century for Germans who’d lost their fight for democracy and fled their homeland to settle in our newly chartered city. It remained so for Jews fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe at the turn of the century and, several decades later, for Americans of African descent fleeing persecution in the South. These great-grandchildren of slaves found decent-paying jobs here before and during World War II and built modest middle-class lives in the neighborhood soon nicknamed Bronzeville. The construction of I-43 and the so-called urban renewal projects that resulted in the seizure and demolition of these peoples’ homes were unimaginable.

And so they are to the characters in Sheri Williams Pannell’s tender new play Welcome to Bronzeville. The first of a planned trilogy, which will end with the neighborhood’s end, the play will have its world premiere in a First Stage production directed by the playwright. It will be the final work in the company’s Wisconsin Cycle, a seven-year play development program honoring local history.

Recognizing that you can’t appreciate the loss of something you never knew existed, much less learn from it, Pannell means to reclaim Bronzeville’s history for Milwaukee audiences, especially our young audiences. “Remembering can be a springboard for greatness,” she told me. “I keep reminding the young people in the cast, ‘You are part of a legacy that goes back many years and it’s a beautiful one. It’s up to you to talk to the elders in your family just like I talked to the elders in the community who gave me the foundation for this play. Ask questions and listen. Write it down. Record it on your cellphones.’”

Welcome to Bronzeville reads a bit like a documentary, introducing us to the people, places, aspirations and shared American values of the largely but not exclusively African American Bronzeville of 1957. At the play’s heart are very recognizable conflicts among a strict Baptist deacon, his wife, and their 12-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter. Mom and the children love music and one of Pannell’s best ideas is to bring the great jazz singer Billie Holiday into the story. Black artists who played in Milwaukee during national tours were barred from our hotels in that period. They stayed in Bronzeville homes. Pannell makes Holiday a formidable guest in the deacon’s house. The wonderful Malkia Stampley, Pannell’s colleague in today’s Bronzeville Arts Ensemble, will play and sing the role. 

By including Holiday, Pannell makes palpable the broad realities of life for African Americans of the period. “Milwaukee may not have had Jim Crow codes on the books but there certainly was an understanding,” she explained. “Bronzeville was an exciting place to be but one might have felt a sense of boundary. You knew where you belonged and where you felt safe. But all your needs were met by the businesses that existed there so you didn’t feel lacking.”

The elders that Pannell interviewed during her three years of writing the play described a self-sufficient community created by de facto segregation. Columbia Savings and Loan, for example, opened in Bronzeville because white banking institutions didn’t want to conduct business with people of color.

“Families were homeowners or, if they rented, there was a sense of responsibility to maintaining your property,” Pannell continued. “Children attended schools with teachers who lived down the block. The minister, the doctor, the dentist, the lawyer—everybody lived within walking distance. It was a walking community. You saw everyone. You greeted everyone. There was Lapham Park with its swimming pool and community center, the Booker T. YMCA, the different churches, the social clubs where people who had come from the same Southern state gathered and a thriving entertainment scene. The needs of the community economically, socially and spiritually could be met in Bronzeville.”

In Welcome to Bronzeville, the Regal Theatre on Walnut Street holds its first children’s talent contest, as it did, inspiring daughter Debbie to spark the formation of a family doo-wop group. Her brother Mike writes and performs the show’s title song despite teasing by other boys in his circle. For the children, it’s a tale about gathering the courage to be who they are. There are lessons for parents, too. Dad is overly strict with his son, although with help from Billie Holiday he comes to understand and respect the boy. “It’s also less than two years after Emmett Till’s murder,” Pannell explained. “African American parents knew that not understanding society’s rules could cost you your life. And aren’t we back to that now?”

Performances are Jan. 13-Feb. 5 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts’ Todd Wehr Theater, 929 N. Water St. Call 414-267-2961 or visit FirstStage.org.

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