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Review: 'Bronzeville' at New Los Angeles Theatre Center

April 30, 2009 |  2:15 pm

Bronzeville As the country debates the efficacy of torture, Robey Theatre Company presents a timely history lesson in homeland security: “Bronzeville,” Tim Toyama and Aaron Woolfolk’s bittersweet drama set in the early 1940s, when Little Tokyo became a destination for blacks seeking wartime jobs in California.

The Goodwin family of Mississippi can scarcely believe the size and luxury of their new L.A. rental home when they’re hit with an even bigger shock: a starving Asian American hiding in the attic. Henry Tahara (Jeff Manabat) is the proud son of the home’s actual owner, Naoma Tahara (Dana Lee), who disappeared during the government’s round-up of prominent Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor. A Berkeley graduate, Henry balks at the very idea of the internment camps. Jodie (Dwain A. Perry) refuses to harbor a fugitive, but Mamie Janie (CeCe Antoinette) will have none of that. After all, who more than Southern African Americans should understand the plight of a man on the run because of his ethnicity? Henry comes to live alongside the Goodwins, sharing gardening tips and a penchant for jazz. But when he and Jodie’s daughter, Princess (Candice Afia), fall in love, the family’s limits are tested.

Toyama and Woolfolk wryly evoke the moment-to-moment awkwardness of people pushed to the edge of their cultural and personal expectations. One hilarious scene has Jodie’s brother, Felix (Larry Powell), using a (real) Time magazine article to help Henry disguise himself as Chinese. (All the period details are finely conjured, from set designer J.P. Luckenbach’s impressive Mission home to Naila Aladdin Sanders’ costumes.)

Director Ben Guillory paces the show on the leisurely side, but gives it a sense of elegance. A nightclub sequence is performed in slow-motion pantomime, like an Archibald Motley painting come to sensuous life. Even the choreography of the scene changes communicates a particular grace.

When the action leaves the house to involve the FBI, the play loses its way, becoming clumsy and overstated. But “Bronzeville” regains its footing in the last scene. Two very different cultures unite for a moment of prayer and mourning, the play’s final image a poignant reminder of how the freedoms we take so easily for granted are paid for in blood and tears.

--Charlotte Stoudt

“Bronzeville,”The New Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday. Ends May 17. $20-$30. (213) 489-0994 ext. 107. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes.

Caption: Cast of "Bronzeville" at The New Los Angeles Theatre Center. Credit: Ed Krieger

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