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With 'Bronzeville,' First Stage Recreates Forgotten Milwaukee Stories

Jan. 16, 2017
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Photo credit: Lindsay Abendschein

In the world premiere of Welcome to Bronzeville, First Stage creates a vibrant, vivid and delightfully rendered look at a once-famed area that was the heartbeat of Milwaukee’s African American community. This show, a celebration of a tight-knit community of residents, businesses and churches, opened last weekend at First Stage.

Reminiscent of Wisconsin-born Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, this play, commissioned by First Stage and wonderfully created by playwright/director Sheri Williams Pannell, introduces the audience to a wide cast of characters (based on real-life people) who inhabited Bronzeville in the 1950s. Although Our Town is set in the fictional small town of Grover’s Corners, Bronzeville’s roots reflect an equally idealized vision of Americana. 

The play is suggested for families with children who are at least 8 years old.

The best thing about Bronzeville is that it presents positive images of African American residents and workers for children who know only of daily TV reports of crime and decay in some nearby Milwaukee neighborhoods.

In its day, Bronzeville was a place where everyone knew each other. Doors were unlocked and children wandered safely through the area, which was centered around Walnut Street. As the play opens, a group of children are rehearsing around a family’s piano in an attempt to win a local variety show. The prize money would put them within reach of spending two weeks at Camp Minikani (which still operates today).

Although a diverse neighborhood is depicted in Bronzeville, (which also includes whites, Hispanics and a Jewish boy) the main character is Mike, an African American teen. The Saturday afternoon matinee’s cast featured Collin Woldt as Mike, who is part of the talented Flame cast, one of two alternating casts of young adults. Mike is torn between wanting to please his parents (sensitively played by Gavin Lawrence and Samantha D. Montgomery) and yielding to peer pressure by a rowdy group of boys. What makes this all the more difficult is that Mike is a deacon’s son. He is reminded almost daily that his actions reflect on his family. 

Among Mike’s most egregious family chores is babysitting his sister and their cousins when his mom is off at work and his father is sleeping before a second-shift position.

Unable to sit through one more episode of TV’s “Howdy Doody,” Mike takes off to join his pals. This is only one of the questionable decisions Mike makes defying his parents. Some of his other poor decisions, such as stealing apples from an outdoor vendor, attract the attention of a neighborhood police officer (Dominique Worsley). Rather than march Mike to the police station, the officer works out an arrangement in which Mike learns the consequences of his misbehavior.

Within the scope of 90 minutes, Bronzeville covers quite a bit of dramatic territory. Not only does it present a portrait of a stable 1950s community, it touches on the coming-of-age frustrations of teenagers and takes on social issues. One of these is the limited lodging opportunities for blacks at Downtown hotels. Even celebrated African American entertainer Billie Holiday finds herself bunking down at Mike’s house during her tour. The opportunity gives Holiday (nicely played by Malkia Stampley) a chance to show Mike his supportive family in a way that Mike hadn’t thought of before. Ironically, it is Holiday’s own fractured childhood that surfaces in her signature hit song, “God Bless the Child,” which Stampley sings here along with several well-known tunes of the era.

Onstage, Bronzeville unfolds under a large graphic mural that highlights some of the area’s most influential residents (and Billie Holliday, too). The action plays out beneath the mural, as if those very folks were looking down on the neighborhood they loved. Credit for the lovely mural goes to scenic designer Sarah Hunt-Frank, who also created a number of cleverly intertwined set pieces to reflect Mike’s living room, the stage of the Regal Theatre, the Hay Market and other locales. Complementing the design are authentic-looking, attractive period costumes by Daryl Harris.

Welcome to Bronzeville runs through Feb. 5 at the Marcus Center’s Todd Wehr Theater, 123 E. State St. For tickets, visit FirstStage.org or call 414-267-2961.

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