Sheri Williams Pannell is a playwright, director and actor, and is First Stage’s dramaturg and education department lead teacher.
“Come where the grown folk work and the children play; Welcome to Bronzeville, U-S-A!”
—From the song Welcome to Bronzeville,
John Tanner, composer, and Sheri Williams Pannell, lyricist
Take a stroll down Dr. Martin Luther King Drive in Milwaukee and you will see the juxtaposition of past and the present. You will witness the renaissance of a neighborhood as you view the modern King Drive Commons Apartments and Business Center, a brand new Pete’s Market and the beautifully rehabilitated Milwaukee Youth Arts Center. Simultaneously, you will find the past is honored in the historic structures of Golda Meir (Fourth Street) School, the old Gimbels Schuster’s Department Store, The Reader’s Choice, Northern Chocolate Company and Fein Brothers.
The buildings confirm the stories my family shared with me of the thriving neighborhood they resided in when first moving to Milwaukee from Bogalousa, Louisiana in 1952. They spoke of friendly neighbors who welcomed them and helped them adjust to the weather, open a passbook savings account, find a church home and register my siblings in school.
The walk rekindles my own childhood memories of shopping for Easter hats and dresses at Three Sisters, purchasing wedding presents at Gimbels Schuster’s and singing in the Cherub Choir at Calvary Baptist on Fourth and Walnut. Presently a new project, The Griot, will offer beautiful housing, retail spaces and a new home for America’s Black Holocaust Museum. While it is challenging to raise funds for a building project with the potential to revive a neighborhood, it can be more challenging to raise the spirit of the people who reside in the community.
Once I was commissioned by First Stage to write a play about Milwaukee’s Bronzeville neighborhood, I interviewed elders who resided in the Milwaukee neighborhood during the years 1940-1968. These primary sources gave me a historical context that was personal. I began with the present Honorary Mayor of Bronzeville, Reuben Harpole, who remembered his childhood address and phone number, favorite teacher, the business owners, popular entertainment venues and performers.
I spent several mornings with Dr. Irene Goggins and her niece, Patrice Bishop-Wise, scanning vast volumes of photographs and newspaper clippings of Milwaukee’s African-American community. Dr. Harry Oden, William and Alicia Bishop, and Fred Reed joined me at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center, which is located on King Drive and Walnut Street in Bronzeville. Our conversations were lively and fact filled with names, dates and places. Many of the memories were documented in publications by local historians Paul H. Geenen and Ivory Abena Black. This is important to me, due to the agenda of some individuals who diminish the accomplishments and history of people of color.
My imagination was ignited and I created a story that is rooted in history. The title of the play, WELCOME TO BRONZEVILLE, is inspired by a line spoken by the teenaged protagonist, Michael Jr. I settled on the year 1957, a bright moment in Bronzeville’s history and a few years before the imposition of the policy known as eminent domain and the construction of the infamous I-43. I have a vague memory of its construction, but the stories of the destruction of Bronzeville are clear, because the elders repeat them often.
The story I have chosen to tell is of a teenaged boy growing up under the watchful eye of his family and community. He is allowed to make mistakes; that’s how we learn the lessons we do not forget. The difference is he is able to survive and learn from the life lesson. Today, this is not always the case. While there are other lessons to glean from WELCOME TO BRONZEVILLE, perhaps survival and love are the most powerful lessons. In the Bronzeville of our recent past, the youth learned and lived to see the dawn of a new day. I pray this story will encourage the adults in all our communities to be more concerned about the youth. Perhaps youth will be encouraged to be more respectful of the adults who love and provide for them and like Michael Jr. say, “Welcome to Bronzeville.”
First Stage presents WELCOME TO BRONZEVILLE, a world premiere play by Sheri Williams Pannell, Jan. 13 – Feb. 5, 2017, at the Marcus Center’s Todd Wehr Theater. Please visit www.FirstStage.org for information.