By Mary Boyle
In the early to mid 1900's, there was an epicenter of African-American culture in Milwaukee; a place that celebrated jazz, blues, and the arts, and was frequented by the likes of Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, and Nat "King" Cole. Bordered by Brown Street on the north, Juneau Avenue on the south, Third Street on the east, and 12th Street on the west, it was one of many African-American neighborhoods that sprang up in northern cities in the early 1900's, as hundreds of thousands of Black Americans escaped the segregation and Jim Crow laws of the South. Many of these neighborhoods, including Milwaukee's, were informally dubbed "Bronzeville." This culturally-rich neighborhood is the focus of the new World Premier play at First Stage, written and directed by Sheri Williams Pannell, called Welcome to Bronzeville.
The concluding production in The Wisconsin Cycle, a series of six plays highlighting Wisconsin's rich history and ethnic diversity, Welcome to Bronzeville returns to 1957, when this Milwaukee neighborhood was its own, self-sustaining community, with it's own vibrant economy and culture; a tight-knit community where an African-American family could own their own home and make a decent living working in one of Milwaukee's factories, breweries, and foundries.
This coming of age story revolves around Mike (Collin Woldt/Kamani Graham), a Deacon's son who is trying to become his own man, which is a difficult thing to do while being endlessly watched and coached by his well meaning neighbors and Sgt. Felmers Chaney (Dominique Worsley), the local policeman. Michael Sr. (Gavin Lawrence) and his wife, Irene (Samantha D. Montgomery), expect a lot of their eldest son, as well as their daughter, Debbie (Kaysha Gail/Makayla Davis), and are dismayed to find their formerly responsible son getting into trouble with some neighborhood boys. Fortunately, the great Billie Holiday (Malkia Stampley) comes to stay in the family's attic suite, and she brings more than just great music.
Parents and grandparents (even those who have always lived outside of Milwaukee) will recognize names like A.O. Smith, Gimbles, and Camp Minikani (which was established back in 1919, by the way), and enjoy a walk down memory lane. More importantly, Welcome to Bronzeville will hopefully inspire the continued renaissance of this culturally unique and important neighborhood in Milwaukee and, as Director Sheri Williams Pannell hopes, will inspire "the return to a mindset of investing in our community and being more thoughtful neighbors."
Welcome to Bronzeville runs now through February 5th at the Marcus Center's Todd Wehr Theater, located at 929 N. Water Street in Milwaukee. Tickets start at $15, and can be ordered by calling (414) 273-7206, or online at www.firststage.org.
About First Stage
Celebrating its 30th anniversary in the 2016-2017 season, First Stage is one of the nation’s leading theaters for young audiences and families. First Stage touches hearts, engages minds, and transforms lives by creating extraordinary theater experiences for young people and families through professional theater productions that inspire, enlighten, and entertain. Its Theater Academy, the nation’s largest high-impact theater training program for young people, fosters life skills through stage skills and serves over 2,100 students each year. As Wisconsin’s leader in arts-integrated education in schools, First Stage’s dynamic Theater in Education programs use theater to promote active learning throughout the curriculum, serving over 20,000 students throughout southeastern Wisconsin each year. In 2012, First Stage was selected to participate in the Partners in Education program of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. First Stage is the recipient of the Milwaukee Business Journal’s Eureka Award in 2013 and 2015, recognizing creativity and innovation in business, education, and the arts. First Stage is a member of TYA/USA, the American Alliance for Theatre and Education, the Wisconsin Alliance for Arts Education, Theatre Wisconsin, and Milwaukee Arts Partners, and is a cornerstone member of the United Performing Arts Fund (UPAF).