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Bronzeville: Little Tokyo in Black and Tan

nArtists shed light on little-known L.A. history

Cynthia E. Griffin | 6/26/2013, 6:42 p.m.

“I wonder if Black folks….”

That simple question, combined with a snatch of a mural and the reaction of an elderly Japanese American merchant at the door of a Little Tokyo camera shop, served as the catalyst to unleash a whole torrent that for mixed-media artist and graphic designer Kathie Foley-Meyer has turned into a multifaceted entity called Project Bronzeville.

Foley-Meyer has intertwined art, theater, music and public discussion into one project to shed light on a long-hidden piece of Los Angeles history that touches the city’s African American and Japanese American communities.

It was February 1942. Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor and President Franklin D. Roosevelt had signed Executive Order 9066, forcing more than 120,000 Japanese American citizens from their homes and businesses into isolated and, in some cases, desolate internment camps.

The move left communities like L.A.’s Little Tokyo looking like ghost towns.

At the same time, the northward and westward migration of African Americans fleeing the chokehold of Jim Crow was taking place.

And in the City of Angels, those two moments in history flowed together and created Bronzeville—a time when Black Americans stepped into the homes and businesses of Little Tokyo, and the area briefly became known for its Jazz and breakfast clubs that operated into the early morning hours.

“… I used to spend a lot of time in Little Tokyo and downtown,” said Foley-Meyer, who in her wanderings noticed bronze plates embedded in the sidewalks that contained quotes and timelines about what businesses existed in the community from the turn of the century.

“I saw the installations and felt moved by them,” remembers Foley-Meyer, who added that it felt like she was walking a city of ghosts. “At the same time, there used to be a mural … from the same period (of the internment). It was a depiction of a guy playing saxophone.”

That combined with the startled and stilted reaction of a Japanese American merchant on First Street and a class at the Museum of Neon Art convinced the artist to go looking for the Black history link to Little Tokyo.

In the process of researching, Foley-Meyer also discovered a play created by the Robey Theatre Company about Bronzeville.

“The Robey Theatre Company has a playwright program where we develop and produce plays three times a year; we offer three separate 10-week sessions to anyone, and everyone interested in writing a play,” explained Ben Guillory, theater co-founder.

One of those sessions drew playwright Tim Toyama.

“He came to me with an idea about a play, and said he needed to be introduced to a Black playwright because for the characters in the play he had in mind, he needed a playwright with a sensibility of the culture,” Guillory remembered.

Guillory introduced Toyama to Aaron Woolfolk and the two collaborated to produce a work called “Bronzeville.” It was based on true events and told the story of a young Japanese American man a Black family found hiding in the attic of a Little Tokyo home they moved into during the internment period.

The play depicted the Black family’s struggle with the decision of whether to turn the young man in or not.

Foley-Meyer said she ended up doing some graphic design work for Robey, and a idea she had been kicking around in her head began to take shape.

The idea, Project Bronzeville, was a multi-discipline show on this slice of L.A. history that included the Robey Theatre play and an art exhibit of her work. These two events are continuing—the play appears on stage Thursday-Sunday and closes July 21 at the Los Angeles Theater Center, 514 S. Spring St., Los Angeles. Foley-Meyer’s exhibit closes June 30 at LA Art Core, 123 Astronaut E S. Onizuka St.