Musical celebrating Chicago’s black cultural history to debut at the Chicago Theater

"Bronzeville The Musical" at the Chicago Theater
“Bronzeville The Musical” is premiering Saturday at the historic Chicago Theater. (Marisa Endicott/MEDILL)

By Marisa Endicott

For one night this Saturday, Bronzeville is taking over the Chicago Theater. “Bronzeville The Musical” tells the story of the Great Migration, the exodus of African-Americans from southern states to northern cities during the greater part of the 20th century.

The musical, an original production by the Chicago-based Mahdi Theatre Company, celebrates the arrival of African-American communities in Chicago as they faced continued discrimination in the North.

Ten years ago, Margaret Mahdi, the musical’s writer and director, discovered that Chicago had a renaissance that was second only to Harlem’s. Bronzeville, originally dubbed the Black Metropolis, was the thriving commercial and cultural center of black Chicago.

Mahdi discovered the area’s rich history and decided to create a musical timeline to honor it. The production highlights the era’s most pivotal moments and historic figures from the 1919 riots to Nat King Cole and the Regal Theater and includes a 16-piece orchestra. The hope is that people and especially youth from the area will “feel inspired and say, ‘Wow, I come from a great history of people who really fought, who sacrificed a lot, so that we can be here today,’” she said.

Margaret Mahdi
Director Margaret Mahdi (in orange) leads a busy Friday night rehearsal. (Marisa Endicott/MEDILL)

However, the production is designed to appeal to a broad audience, especially families. Mahdi reached out to schools everywhere from the suburbs to the inner city to encourage students and their families to attend. “Bronzeville The Musical” also features young people prominently, many from the South Side, including members of the South Shore Drill Team and the Chicago Contemporary Dance Theater.

This will be 19-year-old Brandon Sapp’s first professional performance. He plays several characters in the show, but his favorite is the jazz singer and band leader Cab Calloway. “I love his energy,” Sapp said. He “was bit by the singing and performance bug. He couldn’t stop…I can connect with him.”

The cast represents a variety of experience. Jennifer Johnson, who plays Josephine Baker and Lorraine Hansberry, just returned from playing Nettie in a three-year tour of “The Color Purple.”
Alongside new and longtime performers will be four-time Grammy Award winning gospel great, Karen Clark Sheard.

The wide range of almost exclusively local talent is indicative of the Mahdi Theatre Company’s greater philosophy. Since its founding in 2004, the nonprofit’s mission has been to provide training to performers who are gifted but who also “may not have a head shot or resume, who may have never gone on a professional audition,” Mahdi said. “Everyone deserves an opportunity…We are dedicated to the social causes of the community.”

Johnson didn’t know anyone at the company when she joined the musical’s cast, but now has a new family, she said. “It’s so inspired. That’s one of the words I can use to describe [Mahdi] and her vision.”

The Mahdi Theatre Company is housed at the Harold Washington Cultural Center in Bronzeville, often staging its shows there or at the DuSable Museum in Washington Park. They are swinging big with the historic Chicago Theater in the hopes of ultimately motivating a Broadway tour.

"Bronzeville The Musical" rehearsal
Cast and band members rehearse at the Muhammad University of Islam in Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood. (Marisa Endicott/MEDILL)

Kendall Bell, a 21-year-old actor from the South Side sees “Bronzeville The Musical” as a game changer because of the chance for such a wide variety of talent from Chicago to shine, he said.

Many cast members echoed this sentiment. “It has a lot of potential,” Sapp said. “If the right people come and see it, then I hope they will reward us.”

The Chicago Theater will allow the cast and company to reach a segment of theatergoers and makers who might not otherwise be exposed to their work, and Mahdi plans to take full advantage of the opportunity.

“We’re ready to break through,” Mahdi said. “We want a breakthrough moment, and such an iconic story deserves to be at an iconic place.”

Tickets for this Saturday evening’s showing of “Bronzeville The Musical” are still available.

Photo at top: “Bronzeville The Musical” is premiering Saturday at the historic Chicago Theater. (Marisa Endicott/MEDILL)