Bronzeville at Manzanar: Breakdown
2009 July: As a result, the Los Angeles Theatre Community was presented with the World Premiere of Bronzeville. The five week run went well. Audiences responded enthusiastically, critics approved, houses were sold out from the first preview to the last added performance. The Japanese American community, some of whom had been interred at Manzanar, were tremendously moved by the performances and responded by returning bringing friends, relatives and even purchasing entire houses. The Robey Artists, staff, designers, and technicians were extremely proud of this work, and Judith Bowman, Robey’s Development Director, had an idea. Take the play to Manzanar!
Manzanar is a National Historic Site. In the early months of 1942, following America’s entry into World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized the U.S. Army to remove nearly 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry from their homes and communities on the west coast; two-thirds were American citizens. Manzanar was one of ten remote war relocation centers to which they were sent. Enclosed by barbed wire, the square-mile camp area contained barracks, mess halls, and other buildings, and was home to more than 11,000 internees between March 1942 and November 1945.
Today, the Manzanar National Historic Site, as a unit of the National Park Service, preserves and interprets the many stories of Manzanar’s past.
Robey felt it was an appropriate setting to present Bronzeville to the Inyo County population, especially the students of that area. The story of the Tahara and Goodwin families in Bronzeville is inspired by the experience of a young Japanese-American student, Robert Hirahara and a Black family of Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo, who respected his efforts to avoid internment. Bronzeville tells the story of the families’ interaction, the relationships that develop, the choices made, and the ultimate consequences of their actions.
Again, The James Irvine Foundation’s Rick Noguchi pledged support. The schedule was set, and Tim & Aaron set out to work on the adaptation of the play for the Bronzeville @ Manzanar dates.
Richard Potashin, a member of the Manzanar Interpretative Staff, was our initial contact at Manzanar and introduced us to Les Inafuku, Manzanar Site Superintendent and plans were laid out. Much of 2010 and 2011 were spent putting the pieces together for Robey’s first off-site production. Manzanar is located on U.S. Highway 395 in Inyo County, between the very small towns of Lone Pine (population 2035) and Independence (population 660), 225 miles north of Los Angeles.
Lynn Cooper, Inyo Council for the Arts Executive Director, along with Liz McAteer, the Council’s School Arts Coordinator, and husband, Terry McAteer, Inyo County Superintendent of Schools, were brought on. Judith and I met each of them several times along the way, and with many emails and phone conference calls in between, the plans were laid.
May 15th 2011: Sunday, early afternoon, the first 5-ton truck, loaded with steeldeck platforms that would become the stage rolled out of Los Angeles. Inside: the set designed by Tom Meleck and built by Vision Scenery; costumes designed by Naila Alladdin Sanders; set furniture, once again, generously provided by Cal State LA’s Tech Director Elizabeth Pietrzak, and props acquired by Prop Master Robert Clements. With Ben Guillory at the wheel, and actor Larry Luv Powell in the passenger seat, the four hour drive to Manzanar began.
5:30 pm: We arrived at Lone Pine none the worst for wear, and parked the truck at the Whitney Portal Hostel, where the actors, crew, and technicians would reside for the nine-day stay.
Tony Brockliss, our Master Carpenter, had driven in from LA and was already there, awaiting the load-in that would begin Monday morning, with the arrival of the second 3-ton truck, loaded with lighting equipment and accessories, driven by Production Stage Manager, Sammie Wayne with actor/director Dwain A. Perry escorting him in his trusty pickup truck.
8:00 pm: Tom Meleck, the set and lighting designer, and his son, Michael, arrived and awaited the Monday load-in. Judith Bowman and her shotgun passenger, actor Robert Clements, arrive and settle in.
May 16th: Monday, 7am load-in begins: The steeldeck is put in place and the set is assembled. Sammie and Dwain arrive late morning. With our work crew fourteen strong, plus the generous help of the Manzanar Ranger staff, and an electrcian or two brought into make sure all is well with the museum’s power source, we unload the three ton of equipment and the theatre inside the museum begins to take shape. The remaining cast members arrive throughout the day. Judith, our Road Manager, makes certain all are accommodated and settled into the hostel. Over the next four days we work fast and furiously.
May 18th: By Wednesday we succeeded in transforming the Manzanar space into a 120 seat theatre, complete with a smoke machine. Preparations go forward for our first on-site rehearsal. Tech/dress rehearsals commence under the watchful eye of the Director, PSA Sammie, and designer Tom Meleck.
Throughout it all, the veteran cast remain excited, focused, poised, and reverent, deeply conscious of the value of what we were doing and about to accomplish, mounting five performances of Bronzeville on the Manzanar site.
May 19th: Thursday, 7pm, evening preview: This had its share of hiccups. The audience, noting they were viewing a preview, was sincerely moved by the actors work and the content of the play.
May 20th: Friday morning, 11am: Our first student matinee began with busloads of young people from various schools in the county, many who had never been to Manzanar, arriving excitedly, anticipating the performance. Teachers had been given study guides prepared by Robey, and the students were familiar with the circumstances surrounding the play. They were very impressed with the company and story, and said so during the Q & A following the performance.
7:00 pm: The Friday evening performance for the general public played to a full house and we welcomed Robey Board member Karen Chappelle, accompanied by several supporters, who made the drive from Los Angeles to attend performances.
May 21st: Saturday’s 7pm performance: Again, there was an enthusiastic and receptive audience. Staunch arts advocate, Irving Meyer and wife, artist Kathy Lyn Foley, also made the drive, mentioning they’d been in the audience of the original LATC World Premiere performance of Bronzeville in 2009. Friends of the cast also came and appreciated the work, and the fact that we’d mounted the play on hallowed ground of the Manzanar Camp. The company was delighted to see that playwright Tim Toyama, and Naomi were able to make the drive and attend this performance.
May 22nd: Sunday 3pm: The matinee was sold out, with the help of word of mouth endorsements from local residents and a radio interview of the play’s Director Ben Guillory, by Sierra Wave CEO, Benett Kessler. Local city administrators attended this performance and expressed an interest in future performances of Bronzeville in Inyo County.
May 23rd: Monday morning, 11am: The student matinee, again, played to a full house of students from local schools who, after being prepped by their teachers armed with the Robey study guide, were well prepared and aware of the circumstances which set the sequence of events in motion resulting in camps like Manzanar. The Q&A that followed included the actors answering questions about the preparation for the work presented.
Later that day, the majority of the company of actors left to make the trip home, while the crew remained to strike the set. Seven hours later, the set, stage, and lights, were loaded into the two trucks and all that remained were goodbyes to the Manzanar staff and other crew members, along with sincere expressions of appreciation as to what had been accomplished there and the drive home the following morning.
It should be said the experience of bringing Bronzeville to Manzanar and the dramatic presentation of some of what happened there to the students and local residents, many of whom had not been to Manzanar and knew little of what had occurred there, was of great value. The circumstances leading to the displacement of tens of thousands of Japanese-Americans and its grim and despicable consequences, is something that should be viewed as a tremendous telling of one more chapter in the history of the United States’ rush to judgment and condemnation based in fear of a specific people, without due process and apparently, little remorse once called to make reparations for these acts of injustice. The work of the Robey Theatre Company has always been to present socially conscience productions that enlighten, as well as entertain. We are hopefully providing our audiences with revelations that provoke thought sometimes in areas uncomfortable, but are in dire need of being examined if we are to continue to mature as humane beings.
Bronzeville at Manzanar, the work done by playwrights Tim Toyama, Aaron Woolfolk, the gifted cast of the production, Judith Bowman’s vision of setting the play on the ground from which the story was cultivated, the entire creative team, and the collaboration of all the parties in Inyo County with Robey, has been a profound experience, and we are honored to tell the story.
Thank You for Your Support.
Producing Artistic Director
Robey Theatre Company