Radio

The Ghastly Impermanence: Manchild in the Promised Land – Bronzeville

At a comic book convention in Portland years ago, Trina Robbins was giving a presentation about images of Wonder Woman and female superheroes from the 40s to 90s. As she neared the end she began to rag on recent, highly sexualized characters, a young woman interrupted her and said, “But it’s just fantasy! Why are we supposed to be so critical?” In her usual direct way, Ms. Robbins gave the most sensible reply I’ve heard.

“Maybe, but whose fantasy? Don’t you get tired of being told what you’re supposed to fantasize?”

I lay into contemporary audio drama’s obsession with generic crap because I am suspicious of escapism the same way Ms. Robbins is suspicious of so-called fantasy. I always ask myself “Escape from what?” and, more to the point, “Escape for whom?

Not too surprisingly virtually all escapist audio drama tends to offer escape for the largely white bourgeoisie who make it. If you happen to be neither bourgeois nor white — good luck, homes. As a person of color, the things you have to escape from — if you’re even entitled to do so — have a much different complexion, so to speak.

So it’s rare enough to come across a dramatic series like Bronzeville where the story aims so directly at an African American audience.

Each episode starts with the narrator as a radio DJ playing the Bronzeville theme song, a kind of modern gospel/roots song with lyrics about policy and the numbers game, announcing “Ladies & gentlemen, welcome to Bronzeville. For episode x, the winning numbers are …”

If you grew up as I did, this is all a very quick shorthand setup that tells you location, personnel, and plot, and connects the drama to the tradition of black radio. If you didn’t, you may need some explanation.

The numbers game that is at the heart of Bronzeville was also the heart of much African American upward mobility there and in Harlem. Malcolm X made his early career by being a numbers runner with a great facility for memorizing number combinations. There was nothing new about the illegal lottery system: it had been in place in Boston and New York since the late 1800s. The difference in Chicago is that the policy wheels were completely owned by African Americans, particularly Eddie Jones and his brothers.

Moral crusaders would go on at great length about the rot caused by the numbers game, and how it was destroying African American communities, very much the way they would talk about heroin in the 1950s and crack in the 1980s. The difference was subtle but definitive: where illegal drugs had no community support, the community very much supported the illegal lottery. Indeed without community buy-in, numbers would not have worked at all. Because of the community buy-in, money went to black-owned banks and churches and music halls and cinemas. Even a little old widow could hit the combination and strike it rich. To many the numbers game represented black capitalism at its finest.

Despite all the graft, chicanery, corruption, and violence that attended the numbers game in Chicago, African Americans felt that the benefits far exceeded the detriments. Numbers was illegal, probably immoral, and resulted in senseless murders and widespread crime, but it was the quickest way to get ahead, up from poverty and oppression; anyway, life was cheap in gangland Chicago so what was a little more violence?

That’s the fundamental moral problem in Bronzeville. No one wants to live in poverty, but all the legal roads out are blocked by classism and racism. The moral discussion gets bandied about multiple times, finally unresolved and probably unresolvable.

Jimmy the hired gun and Ben the union organizer:

Lisa Copeland and her college BFF Marjorie:

And other places. Even a Black preacher gets in on the action, right before he takes numbers money for his church.

It’s this moral dimension that makes Bronzeville listenable. People talk, and they talk about things other than the default of sex, money, and power.

Insofar as it seems to glorify violence and crime, the story might well startle some of the bourgeoisie, but everything about the drama is immediately familiar to me. It’s a simultaneous pastiche and tribute. The gangster milieu is, while realistic, completely typical — we’ve all seen Black Caesar — but its real purpose is to allow other things to happen.

I only wish there were more of those other things. The story is clearly based on the real-life Jones brothers. The Copeland Brothers Everett, Jesse and Zeke have names that sound like Edward, George and Zack (McKissack) Jones. Even the white guy Everett Copeland meets in prison and teaches the numbers racket is named Sammy, as in Sam Giancana, Eddie Jones’ cellmate. Anyone who knows the Jones Brothers’ story can figure out how things end, only since this is drama and stuff things have to be more condensed so this story won’t drag out for five more years — or will it? Bronzeville was meant to be a TV series and only wound up as an audio drama because none of the majority white producers would take it.

Even if there were five so-called “seasons” of Bronzeville, ending (I suspect) with Jimmy Tillman getting incurable cancer and then getting gunned down on South Michigan like Teddy Roe, the gangster element would remain the least interesting part of it. Since the ending is already known, the drama has to come from how the story gets there, and what gets said, more than done, along the way.

There’s plenty to be said, of course. About black capitalism. About the shift from numbers to narcotics. About the essential immorality of it all. About racism in the unions. About the Second Reconstruction. When Bronzeville is dealing with these, it’s at its finest. The conversations on these subjects are electric, even if they’re rigged.

Going back to the source, the Jones brothers were notorious for not giving so much as a damn about the plight of other people than themselves. Their investments in banking and real estate were most certainly not made for the community. That particular type of character, so well known to the African American communities of America, is completely absent here, as though Zooman and the Sign never happened, and thus there’s a kind of balance missing in the drama as well. Everything bad that happens to Bronzeville happens because of outsiders, which is just a bit too simplistic. Furthermore, screenwriter Josh Olson disobeys my first commandment of argumentative drama, Always give the best arguments to the antagonists, not to the sympathetic characters. But frankly I’m amazed it tries to be argumentative at all. That it succeeds on that level is a major accomplishment itself. And despite the imbalance of viewpoints within Bronzeville itself, where everyone’s just a bit too good and selfless, the characterizations are nevertheless complex, and that’s all I ever ask when Black folks are being portrayed.

As one would expect from a screenwriter like Mr. Olson, the writing is compact. It is clear Mr. Olson did his research. The recreation of post-war Chicago is crisp and exact from the musicians in the clubs to the prejudices of the newspapers to the vibrancy of radio broadcasts. Even the sponsored commercials in between (like the ones for Blue Apron) refer back to the drama and give a nod to the old days of radio wherein the actors of a show would routinely plug their sponsors’ products.

The actors of course are top drawer. No one will argue with the resumes of Laurence Fishburne, Larenz Tate, Omari Hardwick, and Tracee Ellis Ross. The rest of the cast is exceptional as well. It’s good to see Lahmard Tate and Tika Sumpter finally getting more complex roles. Ms. Sumpter in particular is exquisite. She is a strikingly beautiful actress, and in her TV and film work this sometimes pins her down into glamour girl roles. In the pure audio of Bronzeville, however, there are no distractions and she really gets down to business. Episode 9 in particular proves that she is quite a flexible actress and her voice is one of the very finest among Black actors. I hope she gets to use it more often in the future.

On a certain level, there’s an escapist fantasy at work in Bronzeville. It is a fantasy of an America where African Americans work just as hard as everyone else and are as smart as everyone else and are rewarded fairly like everyone else. That fantasy may not seem like much to white people telling their stories of immortal zombies and artificial intelligence beings flying around the universe solving the problems of existence. But this is only to point out that not all fantasies are equal and, certainly, not everyone needs to escape from the same things. When you’re starving 25 days out of 30, escapist fantasy is as simple as the idea of a Thanksgiving feast. And if you’re a brown person in America, escapist fantasy can be as simple as imagining that you aren’t going to be shot by a white cop with a grudge and bad training — or that your community cares enough about you to put its money into things that help you live, as they do in Bronzeville.

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