Ebony Road Players — Grand Rapids’ self proclaimed black theater — has two important, impactful shows for the community this month, Lines: The Lived Experience of Race and The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington.
Martha Washington’s Reckoning
Miz Martha is a raw, emotional story about white privilege and complicity told through a fictional tale born from the realities of slavery.
Miz Martha, or Martha Washington, is on her deathbed and begins to have fever dreams. In these dreams, her slaves try to convince her to free them before she dies. Through these dreams, Washington faces hard truths about her own complicity to slavery and racism.
Director Randy Wyatt explained that this is not a historical story, but an exploration of race relations.
Some of the slaves see Miz Martha as “one of the good ones,” but the show examines how this is part of a survival mindset, and Washington is still completely guilty in her complicity with the system.
“If you have a soul, by the end of the play you’re really questioning, was she one of the good ones? What does that even mean in this context?” Wyatt said. “Because she wasn’t going to give up the comforts and the benefits that this system of slavery bought her.”
Wyatt emphasized that this show really dives into the story that needs to be heard of African Americans’ built-up frustration from being ostracized by society, beginning with slavery. The points made will draw a mirror to the audience members to really look at their implicit biases and their own collusion to racism.
“The (show examines the) howl of collective frustration and unheard perspective,” Wyatt said. “And that isn’t something that you have to teach calmly and making sure your tone is fine, so that white people get it. It has so much more impact when it’s raw and real and people have to look at what silent things they are complicit with.”
Quianna Babb, who plays Priscilla, said this is a unique show in how it tells the story.
“It’s a really imaginative way of depicting things that happened,” Babb said. “It’s very different than any way I’ve seen the story of slavery played out. It’s told from a very up-to-date, current lens telling a story from the 1800s that is very vivid.”
With a show centered around black experiences, Wyatt said he and Edye Evans Hyde, president of Ebony Road Players, discussed whether having a white man direct this show was in line with her organization’s mission.
“I don’t want to be whitesplaining all over the stage,” Wyatt said. “But what I came back to was, first of all, listen to the black woman in charge of the company and let her make that decision. Also, I just surrounded myself with people of color on the other side of the tables.”
Miz Martha is being performed at this year’s SiTE:LAB, 415 Franklin St. SE, which is an abandoned high school building.
“I think one of the keys to doing site-specific work is treating the site like a character and really trying to understand, what does this site give you that you would have to work really hard to make happen in a theater,” Wyatt said. “The space has levels built into it, and allows for an interesting place for characters to exit the stage that is not off the sides. It allows for brand new movement patterns.”
Evans Hyde said this show fits right into her mission with Ebony Road.
“We’re trying to tell these stories that don’t get told,” Evans Hyde said. “And we’re trying to be progressive on how we tell it and hope that all the audiences that we have in Grand Rapids come to see it and take away something positive, even if it’s just learning a little about history.”
Drawing a Line
LINES: The Lived Experience of Race is a locally made show by Stephanie Sandberg, being directed for the third time in Grand Rapids by Emily Wetzel.
“The power of this type of theater and especially this show is that the people in the audience will be hearing the actual words of people who lived in Grand Rapids,” Wetzel said.
The show centers on housing discrimination and the Fair Housing Act. This year celebrates the 50th anniversary of that act, which protects the buyer or renter from seller or landlord discrimination.
The play and its history are so important, local realtors Shelley Frody and Lola Audu plan to share the show with the local real estate and business community. Frody saw the show a few years ago at Wealthy Street Theatre, while Audu visited the National Association of Realtors annual meeting, where they celebrated the Fair Housing Act and the minority realtors who have championed changing attitudes and policies.
Wetzel said she has a good group of actors who are excited to perform and articulate this message and important historical and current issue.
“This is a lasting piece; it’s a living piece,” Evans Hyde said, referring to how the show has changed over the years as times have changed. “Being part of it now makes me realize there’s still a lot of work to be done and people are noticing it and needing some way to communicate this out to the community.”
The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington
SiTE:LAB, 415 Franklin St. SE, Grand Rapids
LINES: The Lived Experience of Race
1213 Kalamazoo Ave. SE, Grand Rapids