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Morning Shift

Bronzeville: A Podcast Drama Set In 1940s Chicago

Bronzeville is a new, scripted podcast that dramatizes the South Side Chicago neighborhood of the same name -- with tales of gangsters, grifters, gamblers and regular people trying to get by.

The audio drama, set in the 1940s, features several well-known African-American actors, including Laurence Fishburne and Tracee Ellis Ross.

Fishburne plays the lead role of Curtis "Eyeball" Randolph, the neighborhood's longtime gang boss who's out of the game. The show's other protagonist, played by West Side native Larenz Tate, is Jimmy Tillman, a black man from the rural South who makes his way north to Chicago to escape his checkered past and make a new life in Bronzeville.

Tate, who is also a co-director and co-executive producer of the podcast, said Bronzeville tells “a different side of the American dream, coming from the African-American community.”

Morning Shift host Jenn White spoke with Tate, his brother and co-executive producer LaRon Tate, and writer Josh Olson about how they conceived of and executed their podcast.

Jenn White: Describe the world that listeners are stepping into in Bronzeville.

Larenz Tate: Bronzeville is (about) a South Side neighborhood in Chicago and the story basically chronicles the lives of this African-American community post-WWII. It’s interesting because at a time in the 1940s or the 1930s, most of that migration from the African-American community came from the South. Out of that, (with) Jim Crow, you would assume that the black community would not be able to attain the kind of lifestyle ... that other people were able to have -- that “American dream” if you will.

This place was a metropolis -- you had a self-sufficient community of African-American people where they owned their own banks, they owned their own department stores, they had their own hospitals and schools. There was a political influence that this black community had as well. We thought, we have to tell this story. We don’t get a chance to see stories like this -- that really uplifts the black folk in that American dream. So we thought, “Why not do this audio series?” -- and lay it out in a way that we sort of pull back and reach back from the days of great radio shows.

White: LaRon, what is it about this story that appealed to you?

LaRon Tate: One, being Chicagoans, that was the one thing that appealed -- that we had something in our own backyard that was so rich, both literally in terms of the community itself, but also a part of American history that’s been untold. Once we were exposed to this history of Bronzeville, it was something that I felt we definitely had to move forward with.

White: Josh, how much research did you have to do heading into this project to understand how these gambling rings were structured and how the community itself was structured?

Josh Olson: There’s not a lot of material out there. There is a great, great book called Black Metropolis, which we mined deeply.

In fact, in the first episode there’s a sequence when Jimmy gets off the train and sees Bronzeville for the first time -- I was stuck with the problem of how do you do this kind of sweeping vista without having any visuals? So we just took a couple paragraphs from the book Black Metropolis, which were absolutely gorgeous and kind of described the world. But it also contained a lot of information about how the games were structured, how the organization was structured.

I also had a friend, Michael Theobald, who we got to hire on this. I call him “Rain Man.” He’s from Chicago, he’s a history fanatic and he’s able to find stuff that I don’t even know where some of it came from. So I kind of immersed myself in kind of the broad generalities of things and then as I got into the writing of it, if I got into a situation (where I needed specific details) … I called up Michael. Half an hour later he called me back with this stuff. So it’s a combination of my own research and then having this amazing resource.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the 'play' button to listen to the entire interview.

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