Stage & Screen

A Musical History of the Black Metropolis

Chicago’s Bronzeville: The Musical stages a one-night performance at the Chicago Theatre

Bronzeville the Musical

The energetic highpoint of Chicago’s Bronzeville: The Musical, a one-night show that played on February 27 at the Chicago Theatre, came early in the second act. Cab Calloway—impersonated by nineteen-year-old Chicago State University student Brandon Sapp—bounded onto the stage and began belting “Minnie the Moocher.” When he got to the traditionally repeated sequence “Hi-de hi-de hi-de ho,” the audience responded in full force, shouting the lyrics back in a joyful, communal burst as Sapp conducted along with exaggerated gestures.

While this was one of the most explicit moments of audience participation, the wall between stage and audience rarely felt solid throughout this dynamic, interactive telling of history, which often succeeded in making the audience feel part of its celebration—a difficult task in the spacious Chicago Theatre. For several hours, Chicago’s black history was brought to life by an all-black cast performing a whirlwind of song and dance that didn’t shy away from tragedies of oppression but, nonetheless, remained a celebration of black culture and achievement.

Bronzeville: The Musical is a work of the Mahdi Theatre Company, which, according to its mission, aims to “Educate, Elevate, and Entertain in the ARTS.” Margaret Mahdi, the writer and director, grew up on on the South Side. For this performance at the Chicago Theatre—they have previously put on shows at the Harold Washington Cultural Center and the DuSable Museum—the company brought together an impressive array of local talent: the actors on the cast list range from amateur high school students to professional performers, and many played multiple roles throughout the production. Mahdi also made an effort to attract a robust audience, visiting local schools and encouraging people to attend, according to a February article by Medill Reports Chicago.

Rather than an exploration of a single plot or set of characters, the musical was a collage of historical moments from the African-American experience, mostly represented through songs that drew on jazz and gospel styles. Starting with the characters Father and Mother Africa blessing their grandchildren in Africa, the narrative moved through scenes of slavery to emancipation to the multiple waves of the Great Migration that saw six million African Americans leave the south. Once situated in the north, the show touched on significant events in Bronzeville’s history, from the 1919 race riots to the job scarcity of the Great Depression. Much of the musical involved showcasing historical figures, like Margaret Burroughs, the founder of what would become the DuSable Museum, and locations, such as Bronzeville’s Regal Theater and Savoy Ballroom.

The risk of a “timeline”-style show is that the audience won’t stay invested without a consistent set of characters to pin their emotions to. This sometimes rang true for Bronzeville; it could be easy to get lost in the quick shuffle between historical figures and moments, which sometimes felt uneven and rushed. The Gwendolyn Brooks character was only onstage long enough to recite the words of her famous poem We Real Cool. However, the quality of the singing and dancing—as well as the variety of costumes, like the bright dresses glittering in scenes of Bronzeville’s nightlife—generally kept the production engaging.

The use of a variety of historical subjects did make the show well situated to offer historical commentary. In one song, a woman representing the Chicago Urban League greeted new Chicagoans, reciting various rules that the League put together for migrants. She pronounced these rules, such as “don’t talk too loudly in public places,” and even “don’t eat watermelon on your front porch,” in a drawn-out, hoity-toity voice to roars of laughter from the audience. The scene effectively mocked efforts of middle-class black organizations like the Urban League to try and ensure that new residents of Bronzeville conformed to their standards of respectability. The production’s tone wasn’t always spot-on—at times, overdramatic acting and weak dialogue provoked audience laughter at moments that shouldn’t have been funny, such as scenes of slavery or a song about a lynch mob—but the Urban League scene was an example of use of drama and humor at its best.

Cab Calloway’s rousing back-and-forth with the audience was part of a larger sequence of performances at the Regal Theater, a highlight of the production. One by one, musical stars who performed at the Regal—such as Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole, and more—came onstage and sang a snippet of their work, usually decked out in elaborate costume. The actors had no trouble imbuing the famous songs with powerful vocals, and the audience was clearly delighted whenever a new star appeared onstage. The re-creation of the Regal Theater inside the downtown Chicago Theater served as a powerful reminder of legal and cultural obstacles that have been overcome. While Chicago retains high levels of de facto segregation, barriers like restrictive covenants and segregated public accommodations that once restricted black Chicagoans to Bronzeville spaces no longer exist, and a musical celebrating black talent for a mostly-black audience took its rightful place in the center of Chicago.

The Mahdi Theatre Company refers to the musical as “Broadway Bound” in its promotional material, and in a speech after the show, Mahdi said she’s hoping for more funding opportunities to be able to take the show on the road. While a national tour may not be able to match the power of performing Chicago’s history in Chicago, the show does deserve more than a one-night showing: many wrote on the show’s Facebook event page that they were disappointed to miss the only opportunity to see the production. While Bronzeville’s talent and concept are especially exciting, there are some kinks it would need to work out to succeed on a larger scale. The production couldn’t make up its mind whether it wanted to celebrate known historical figures, such as those in the joyful Regal scene, or to invent new characters. One fictional couple, Jimmy and Betsy, occasionally appeared, arguing over whether to migrate to Chicago and, later, whether to stay in the face of the Great Depression. However, such brief time with the characters made it hard to connect with their domestic dispute, and the audience’s reaction to fictional characters never matched their excitement at seeing a well-known historical character take the stage. Making a choice between history and historical fiction, as well as streamlining some of the songs to focus on fewer characters in-depth, could help organize the show without interfering with its rousing music and cultural celebration.

After Mahdi’s remarks, she introduced Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan as the honored guest—a surprising moment. Farrakhan gave a brief speech lauding the show as an opportunity to introduce children to black history, and argued that black artists and entertainers have helped the black community to face oppression: “A song carried us through. A dance carried us through.” Mahdi herself is a member of the Nation of Islam, and at times the movement’s worldview came up in the show; one song featured longtime Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad, snippets of Muslim prayer, and a reference was made to the Creator at the show’s beginning. However, beyond these moments, the musical itself never felt particular to one church or creed. Black Nationalist leader Marcus Garvey, who influenced the NOI, was celebrated in a song, but so was Chicago Defender founder Robert Abbott, who was known to oppose Garvey.

The scene before the musical’s finale featured Lorraine Hansberry, another woman who succeeded in bringing her people’s story to a big stage, speaking about race relations to a group of reporters jumping to interview her. As Hansberry departed, the picture of the real-life Hansberry on the projector providing the backdrop for the show glowed brighter, and suddenly switched to pictures previously shown in the musical, of the continent of Africa and slave shackles. While the wisdom of giving the show such a wide historical scope had at times seemed questionable—it’s hard to do justice to stories of slavery and the Great Migration in just one musical—it paid off in the end by setting the stage for that powerful moment of juxtaposition. The sudden flashback to earlier black history reminded the audience how far African Americans were able to come after so many years of bondage, and how incredible it is that black Chicago’s leaders achieved what they did in the face of the barriers enacted by our racist nation.

However, closing with Hansberry, who died in 1965, raises questions about why the musical didn’t reach into Bronzeville’s present. Ending in the sixties seems arbitrary for a musical that began pre-slavery, and it’s a missed opportunity to connect the Bronzeville of today to its storied history. At the same time, though, at every moment that the musical celebrated Chicago’s historical black culture and talent, it was simultaneously celebrating present-day Chicago black culture and talent by showing off the prowess of the local actors onstage. As Mahdi said in her speech, “Who better to tell our story than us?”

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