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Bronzeville The Musical Celebrates African-American History and Community

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Bronzeville The Musical

Mahdi Theatre’s Bronzeville The Musical opened this month to thunderous applause from a packed house at the Fine Arts building downtown. With its tribute to historic Bronzeville and positive messaging about community, this soulful musical is a treat for the entire family.

Set in contemporary Chicago at the height of the city’s increasing crime and “teen takeovers”, Bronzeville explores the struggles of the Brown family as parents Tanya and John struggle to keep their teenage son Marquis from going down the wrong path in life. The musical opens with a breaking news montage announcing another “teen takeover” of young people looting and vandalizing the city. The dramatization of events on stage is accompanied by a large screen display of real-life footage of “teen takeovers” that have occurred in Chicago over the past few years, bringing an added sense of gravitas to the storyline.

The Brown’s son Marquis is caught up with the wrong crowd and is influenced by the leader of the teen takeovers, Redbone Tone. Despite his mother’s constant warnings, Marquis sneaks out of the house repeatedly to join Tone in his wayward destruction. Marquis’ father John tries to help, but he is battling his own demons of recently returning home from prison and living with the guilt of letting his family down. Nevertheless, he is persistent about being in his son’s life. During a heartfelt father/son exchange, John reveals that while he was in prison, he studied the family’s history and implores Marquis to follow the example of his ancestors’ greatness and change his life for the better.

While John tells Marquis about the family’s history, the large screen backdrop projects images of ancient Africa and the Mali empire. The ensemble cast emerges in beautiful cultural garb and performs a composition inspired by traditional African dance. John shares that the family roots reach back to King Abdul and Queen Mariam from Timbuktu. As John mentions the king and queen, they appear among the dancing ensemble--the king tells Marquis that African people are the original men and women of earth and that he should protect his community. The queen steps forward to tell Marquis and the young dancers in the ensemble to keep their hearts pure and their minds on positivity. Marquis’ exchange with his ancient African ancestors appears to be making an impression on him, but it is suddenly interrupted by invaders who wage war on the ensemble and put them on ships bound for the Middle Passage.

John’s lesson to his son about the history of their family continues through several periods of the African-American experience following the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. While they are having breakfast the next day in Bronzeville’s famous Pearl’s Soul Food restaurant, he tells the story of how members of the family in Georgia took part in The Great Migration and made their way to Chicago for a better life. During these scenes, the soul food restaurant transforms into the historic Illinois Central train station and Bronzeville’s Regal Theater where great performers such as Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald, Fats Waller, and Cab Calloway redefined American entertainment.

To save from telling you the entire story note that John's intended goal is to further inspire his son to be more community-minded, The remaining story reveals what happens as Marquis is introduced to the history upon which he stands and provides him much to consider as he continues his journey making decisions that impact the future of not only himself but family and community which is the extended family.

The ensemble cast of Bronzeville shines as the production moves through its dramatic and musical segments. Young cast members do an excellent job conveying the emotions and ethos of modern-day teens. Vocalists are in top form as they sing the catchy numbers of the original score as well as classic jazz and hip hop.

Through its multilayered presentation of music, history and thought-provoking messaging, Bronzeville excels as a shining work of community-focused theater. The musical’s journey through the African-American experience beginning with the ancient African civilization and culminating with the Great Migration provides a strong framework for audiences to contemplate how knowledge of our past can help us reach our young people. Bronzeville’s messaging about family, culture, relationships, and community reflects deeply on our current social problems and challenges the audience to look within for solutions.

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