Four years ago, when Edye Evans Hyde started the Ebony Road Players, she didn’t know it would turn into a catalyst for social justice.
The Ebony Road Players, described by Hyde as West Michigan’s black theater company, was founded in 2013.
“There (was) kind of a deficit in the theater world here in Grand Rapids dealing with diversity, like there’s no black theater,” Hyde said. “There had been one called Robeson Players, named after Paul Robeson … back in the ’80s and ’90s.”
Ebony Road initially focused on highlighting black playwrights and encouraging more black actors and stage managers. But then the group’s mission became bigger.
“We still had that component, which is very important, but it grew into social justice, where we try to do theater for people who don’t get a lot of representation in theater arts,” Hyde said.
Hyde said that not only is the arts important for the black community, but for the entire community in general.
“It’s an expression. It’s telling their stories and having a stake in history,” Hyde said. “The arts in general is brushed off as something that is not really needed when, in actuality, brain-wise you can become more creative, solve problems and work in teams.”
Beyond the life skills one can gain through theater, Hyde also said theater is a smoother way to approach a discussion on social issues.
“It’s so much easier to digest an issue when you’re watching it onstage, rather than someone preaching it at you,” Hyde said. “When you go to a theater production, you’re watching it as a spectator.”
At many shows, Ebony Road will host “talkbacks,” conversations between the actors, directors and the audience on the important topics and underlying themes presented in the show.
“There’s a reality that you’re seeing, but you’re on the other side of it,” Hyde said. “And eventually it’s easier to digest … look at it, think about it and then react.”
Annually, Ebony Road Players hosts a “Loving Day” event to celebrate the 1967 Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court case that struck down laws criminalizing interracial marriage. The day is celebrated around the country. This year’s block party event is slated for June 9-11 in Grand Rapids.
“It’s an annual event celebrating diverse families, individuals that are considered biracial or multiracial, people in interracial marriages and cross-cultural adoptions,” Hyde said. “All of those family units come together and celebrate identity.”
The modest Ebony Road office is located on the corner of Kalamazoo Avenue and Hall Street. The group has a five-member board, with Hyde at the forefront as the founder of the acting troupe.
The Ebony Road Players’ next events are the Loving Day community celebration June 9-11 and a performance of Detroit 67 in October.
Ebony Road also offers a community spring and summer break program where kids write a play in one week and present the final product to their parents at the end. For adults, Ebony Road offers six-week programs focusing on acting, musical performance and other aspects of theater. The troupe also has been teaching elementary students at Coit Creative Arts Academy for three years now.
“They give us an hour or two during the school time and we go in and teach playwriting or how to find your character,” Hyde said. “It’s pretty fun to watch them go through that process.”