Chicagoan Larenz Tate Goes Home in 'Bronzeville'

The Chicago-raised actor spotlights the South Side's rich history in his audio drama 'Bronzeville'

In 2004, to prepare for his role as Quincy Jones in the hit film “Ray,” Larenz Tate sat down with Jones, the legendary producer, in person. As they are both from Chicago, the conversation eventually turned to the city’s historic South Side.

“It was fascinating. Quincy’s father worked for the families that owned [illegal gambling rings] as a numbers runner,” said Tate.

That story inspired the actor to delve deeper into Chicago’s history, and, more than a decade later, create his audio-scripted drama podcast “Bronzeville,” which just wrapped its 10-episode season in April. “Bronzeville” follows the lives of African-Americans leaving the Jim Crow-era South and coming to Chicago during the Great Migration.

“The idea of having a piece of the American dream didn’t seem attainable,” Tate said.

At the time, Chicago was a city of immigrants, each carving out a niche: Al Capone and the Italians monopolized bootlegging, while the black community ran “policy wheels,” illegal versions of the lottery.

“What was interesting was that the people who ran the policy really invested back into the community in a very positive way,” Tate said.

The economic engine of illegal gambling turned Bronzeville into a thriving, self-sufficient neighborhood. He added, “It was basically like this black metropolis."

The podcast boasts a star-studded cast including Laurence Fishburne (ABC’s “Black-ish”) and Omari Hardwick (Starz’ “Power”). Tate stars as Jimmy Tillman, an ambitious man forced to flee the South and head north. In Chicago, he finds work as a numbers runner for the Copelan family, the kingpins of Bronzeville policy (based off the real-life Jones family).

“He meets a beautiful young woman who he’s smitten by,” Tate said. “A good friend tells him, ‘Listen, that’s Lisa Copelan, you cannot mess with that woman.’” Spoiler alert: He messes with that woman. Drama ensues.

“Bronzeville” comes at a time when Chicago—especially the South Side—is squarely in the nation’s eye, and Tate views that as an opportunity.

“We talk about Chicago and the first thing you think about is all the unnecessary violence that’s happening. I think there’s a bigger picture as to why that is, but for us, we want to make everyone aware and talk about this,” he said. “It’s our forgotten history. And it’s not just for African-Americans. It’s American history.”

Download “Bronzeville” for free on iTunes. 

Harold Washington Cultural Center
Harold Washington Cultural Center (Courtesy Harold Washington Cultural Center)

Visiting the ‘ville: Tate takes note of the area’s historic sites

“[The Harold Washington Cultural Center] celebrates the first black mayor and what that meant to the community,” Tate said. “If you didn’t have Harold Washington, you wouldn’t have President Obama, simple as that.” 4701 S. King Dr., Chicago, 773.373.1900

"Chikonda Williams" by Maxwell Emcays at the Gallery Guichard
"Chikonda Williams" by Maxwell Emcays at the Gallery Guichard (Courtesy Gallery Guichard)

Formerly the Benjamin Franklin store (owned by the Joneses and the first black-owned department store), the  Gallery Guichard promotes new artists from underrepresented areas.

“They are preserving the hallowed grounds of a time when we were kings,” Tate said. 436 E. 47th St., Chicago, 773.791.7003

ISF Bank
ISF Bank (Courtesy ISF Bank)

The ISF Bank, one of two black-owned banks in Chicago, has unique architecture worthy of an Insta-snap.

“It’s actually the bank that the Jones brothers created,” Tate said. 8700 S. King Dr., Chicago