Bronzeville: Robey Theater Company and the Performance of Black Struggle
Posted: 26 Nov 2018
Date Written: November 26, 2018
In 2008, the Robey Theater Company located in downtown Los Angeles commissioned playwrights Aaron Woolfolk (Black American) and Tim Toyama (Japanese American) to develop a theatrical project about Japanese American mass incarceration during the 1940s. The result of the Woolfolk/Toyama collaboration was a two-act play titled Bronzeville. Set in the Little Tokyo area of Los Angeles, the historically based fictional drama narrated the story of the incarceration of a Japanese American family named the Taharas and an African American family named the Goodwins who move from Mississippi to Los Angeles and into the Tarara’s home once the Taharas have been forcibly removed under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 issued on February 19, 1942. When the Goodwins discover the Tahara’s son, Hide “Henry” Tahara, hiding out in the attic, a conflict unfolds as the Goodwins are forced to negotiate the choice between harboring an enemy of the state or turning Henry into the authorities. The title of the play takes its namesake from the fact that the area of Los Angeles referred to as Little Tokyo, due to its substantial concentration of Japanese Americans, was quickly transformed into a predominantly African American community that flourished during the period of the Second World War.
This essay considers how Robey Theater Company’s work has attempted to articulate and critique US historical racial formation through plays such as Bronzeville. These plays have dealt with the relationship between African and Asian diasporic experiences of the Americas and reveal how as George Lipsitz suggests “social relations take on their full force and meaning when they are enacted physically in actual places.” However, the struggle for space is also understood as a struggle endemic to American drama and performance. The Bronzeville script functioned as an archival document as well as an interpretive framework. The performance of the play contested colorblind ideology and the mythology of the American melting pot. I argue that the play is also a corrective and generative pedagogical tool that elucidates the way in which the state in conjunction with private business interests, colluded to structure class inequality by controlling the development of residential neighborhoods through racial restrictive covenant laws, limited access to capital, and denied citizenship to historically marginalized groups (in this case Black and Asian). Hence Bronzeville elucidates what Cedric Robinson referred to as the constructed social systems in which race is proposed as a justification for the relations of power. The racial regime is a makeshift patchwork masquerading as memory and the immutable. Nevertheless, racial regimes do possess history that have discernible origins and mechanisms of assembly. This paper is invested in how Robey Theatre Company’s work is part of a continuum of the artist-activist, Paul L. Robeson (1898-1976), who sought to use performance as tool of critical resistance against the damaging falsity of racial regimes.
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