Skip to content

‘Bronzeville, Little Tokyo’ serves up WWII L.A.


As the 33rd iteration of the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival ( gets underway today through May 3, a special presentation within the extravaganza resurrects the often overlooked travesty of forced relocation and internment of Japanese American citizens to camps in the western United States, during World War II. An equally unknown facet of this dark chapter of “the last good war,” is the part that African Americans played in filling the void, however briefly, left by the unfortunates stripped of land and property in the name of national security.

One sign of our current collective progress is that the present focus on race relations, traditionally a diametrical opposition between Blacks and Whites (with both races bearing national roots going back at least to the 1800s), is now a more heterogeneous “bouillabaisse” of many immigrant populations, many who’ve relocated here within the last half-century.

That said, there are historical antecedents in our past from which to study, and perhaps provide solutions to negotiate these precarious times. Seventy odd years ago, President Franklin D. Roosevelt succumbed to the national panic by arranging for the mass incarceration of over 100,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans in “internment camps” throughout the inland western United States. Thousands of loyal citizens were forced to leave their homes and property in the wake of Executive Order 9066 in March of 1942.

The four-acre enclave known as “Little Tokyo,” bounded by Central Avenue, First Street, and San Pedro Street became deserted, to be repopulated by droves of African and Latino Americans lured by defense industry jobs vacated by the wartime draft. Dubbed “Bronzeville,” it became a cultural hub as scores of “breakfast clubs” sprouted up offering live music.

Bronzeville lasted a mere three years, as the end of hostilities meant Blacks would be laid off to open employment for returning war veterans. The internment camps closed, and the transition reversed as Bronzeville transitioned back into Little Tokyo.

This year, the Asian Pacific Film Festival repackages this dormant history via contemporary technology. Local media companies “FORM follows Function,” and “Visual Communications” have mounted a two-day commemoration of Bronzeville on April 29 and 30 at the historic Nishi Building (at First and Central), and the Union Center for the Arts (First and San Pedro).

Maya Santos of FORM follows Function notes that this is their second year designing site-specific installations for the film festival. The 2017 offering is much more elaborate.

“We also expanded our exhibition to include not only projection mapping, and VR but also live music, a theatrical reading (with readings from the play “Bronzeville” by the Robey Theatre Company), an altar, and an open mic as a result of a much more expanded community partnership and collaboration,” she says.

This year’s version features “MEMORY BANK,” a projection mapping installation allowing guests to view significant individuals from the community as they share memories of that time and place via an open microphone. This two day interactive event is open to attendees of all ages between 3 and 10 p.m. (Saturday), and 3 and 8 p.m. (Sunday).

During the same time period, “BRONZE, BRASS, JAZZ,” a virtual reality animation executed by CalArts/USC alum Javier Barboza and Kaleidoscope Media Studio, will be screened.

It conjures up the breakfast clubs and fabled musicians of that bygone era, in a contemporary incantation of the storytelling tradition. Santos anticipates this cutting edge media may “…increase engagement and participation and to also create a space for healing and connection.”

“I hope that people will gain a greater awareness and respect for this place that is Little Tokyo, for what it was, what it is and what it can become,” she continues.

“I also hope people will come away with a broader sense of community beyond ethnic identity.” A special treat will be a Sunday performance by a quintet organized especially for this event at 6 p.m. Dubbed “The Bronzeville Union,” it features Josef Leimberg on trumpet, alto saxophonist Josh Johnson, Mark de Clive-Lowe on the keyboard, Trevor Ware on bass, and bandleader Dexter Story on drums.

“I’ve been listening to a lot of the music from that period to inspire my original compositions [specifically commissioned by the festival],” Story says.

Most of this research involved reading the historical narrative, as there is little recorded material from the era aside from “Charlie Parker At The Finale Club,” featuring Miles Davis.

This research compiled has led him to conclude that “…(the war era) was not a happy time for humanity.”

This sentiment will no doubt impact Sunday’s performance.

“All the music we play is not gonna be happy,” Story cautions.

One composition written specifically for the occasion is titled “Executive Order 9066,” a tune he describes as “…a slow Japanese dirge [a song or hymn of grief for a funeral].”

The 33rd Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival takes place April 27 – May 4, 2017. “Bronzeville, Little Tokyo” will be held on Saturday April 29, and Sunday April 30. For more information, access the website at