Fear and hope. These are the feelings that permeate throughout the initial episode of this series. They are the feelings personified through Jimmy Tillman, voiced by actor and executive producer of the series, Larenz Tate. Tillman is a black kid who flees Arkansas under the cloud of murder (albeit self defense) to Bronzeville in search of a better life.
Episode 101 opens in prison, Curtis Randolph (played by Laurence Fishburne) is visiting Everett Copeland (played by Wood Harris). The discussion between Randolph and Copeland focuses on the numbers or policy game that Copeland’s family runs in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago. Copeland is serving a two year sentence for tax evasion in connection with the numbers game and is talking to Randolph about how he will keep the policy game going while in prison. Everett has been spending time with fellow prisoner Sammy Manetti, an Italian (voiced by Patrick Heusinger). Randolph, not too keen on the idea of this new budding relationship, warns Copeland of the dangers of getting involved with the Italians. No doubt something that will become important later in the series.
While Copeland appreciates the warning, the reason he asks Randolph to come visit, is to manage the numbers game while he is under federal lockup. Randolph is reluctant. He did create the game but has moved away from that life and is “playing something a lot bigger now.” Curtis Randolph is now a legitimate businessman, he has a position of influence at the local bank. He tells Everett, he will keep an eye on things but can’t get back into that life. A common trope in these types of stories. An established legit businessman has a nefarious past which has enabled his current legal success.
The episode moves on to Everett’s younger sister Lisa (voiced by Tika Sumpter) who has just graduated college and is packing up her belongings, presumably heading home when she is visited by her white friend Marjorie (voiced by Brittany Snow). This scene is mostly small talk, it clearly establishes the two women as college friends. But also highlights the obvious differences between black and white people during this time period. The scene ends with the two women vowing to keep in touch, but something tells me that won’t be easy. If and when they do meet again, circumstances will be different and surely test their relationship.
The story picks up two years later in Arkansas with Jimmy Tillman having a conversation with his friend Arthur. Tillman is passionate about workers rights. He is not happy with the low pay from his paper mill job, and wants more. In this scene you can tell it’s not just more money Jimmy is after. He wants more out of life. During a local union meeting, leader Ben Faulkner (voiced by Michael Raymond-James) is attacked and Jimmy comes to his aid. In the ensuing scuffle Jimmy kills one of the antagonizers. A black man killing a white man in 1940s Arkansas is a crime punishable by death. Knowing he can’t stay, Jimmy and Ben board a train to Chicago. Jimmy sets his sights on Bronzeville, the Black metropolis. When the two men arrive to Chicago they exchange kind words and part ways, one to the north side the other south. Both agreeing to meet up again in the future. Their departure parallels the scene earlier between Marjorie and Lisa. They too will face a day of reckoning if and when they meet again.
Upon stepping into the heart of Bronzeville Jimmy meets Casper Dixon (voiced by Cory Hardrict). The smooth, jive talking, Casper introduces Jimmy to the Copeland policy wheel (numbers game). Casper vows to take care of Jimmy and show him the town. Casper begins to educate Jimmy on the Copeland organization and how it controls Bronzeville, and the connection to Curtis Randolph. During Jimmy’s education, two men run up on he and Casper and attempt to steal the days numbers take. Jimmy quickly proves his worth by fighting off the assailants. Thankful for saving his life and recognizing what Jimmy can do, Casper says he will find Jimmy work. No doubt as muscle for the Copeland family.
This initial episode laid the groundwork for the rest of the series. Like many dramas about organized crime, the tropes are pretty obvious and often hit you in the face. What will be interesting about the series is how the Black community functions as a part of the larger mainstream. How will the mainstream deal with Bronzeville as it continues to grow in scope and influence? Ultimately, what will be its undoing? Bronzeville was a self-sufficient Black community on the south side of Chicago. It represented safety, opportunity and paradise for Black Americans. No doubt a threat to the mainstream.
There is such a difference in an audio series drama versus television. Without the aid and crutch of visuals, language is key in setting the scene and tone for the listener. In this instance you get a real understanding of 1940s America and in particular Chicago. Whether it’s referencing Black people as coloreds or negroes. Referring to people like Manetti as EYE-TAL-YUNS, the spoken word is critical in informing where this story is set. Overall a solid opening episode, anxious to see where the series goes from here.