Theater at its best can address universal themes for the audience and the actors: the struggle for human dignity, relationships, conflict.
But a lot of theater isn’t accessible to communities of color. Still, some projects are overcoming that: I visited Hope Road, the first theater company ever on Dayton’s West Side.
The West Dayton neighborhood of Lakeside is a close knit black community of single family homes, churches, and a few local businesses. There are also a few vacant lots on the block. I go inside a nondescript refurbished house next door to a church, called the Bethel House.
It’s a simple set-up without much furniture or fanfare, but inside the Bethel House, I'm greeted by a gaggle of beautiful brown faces, kids who are bitten by the acting bug. I meet Joyce Barnes in the kitchen—she's the artistic director and playwright here at Hope Road Youth and Community Theater. Today she's in charge of the snacks, and I find her putting chocolate chip cookie dough out on sheets to bake.
“We have kids who have not had exposure to live plays, they certainly might not have been cast in a play,” she says. “And if they are cast in a play maybe at school or whatever, they might not have lead roles.”
One of Joyce's earlier plays was a spin-off on Jesus Christ Superstar.
“In the play, the predominantly white school was holding auditions for the roles and one of the young men was upset because he was cast as Judas and not as Jesus Christ,” she says.
But I have to ask—what's wrong with being cast as Judas? In other words, why should we be concerned about roles for African-American youth?
“Leading roles for African American actors of any age in our community seem to be few and for between,” Barnes explains. “What we know that we are also doing is providing opportunities for skill building, for confidence building, poise, self expression. We want to pull kids out of the background, onto the stage where they really have to focus, concentrate. They may never want to end up as an actor, but they will always be presenting themselves to people.”
Hope Road is a theater company, but it’s also about what founder and director Nicole Pritchett calls building character.
“We want the kids to do more than just rap, we want the kids to learn the art of expression,” she says. “The programs that we have within the organization are designed to build-up the confidence, self esteem, value in our youth.”
This is the city's only African-American theater group, and its casts are multiracial. They’ve been around for two years, and this weekend will present their third play of the season at the University of Dayton. All of the plays so far have been grounded in Black culture, but the company is also looking for new material from other cultures and new playwrights.
I was in the audience for Hope Road’s production of “One Day in Birmingham” earlier this year. The play, written by Joyce Barnes, is about the 16th Street church bombings that killed four little girls in Birmingham in 1963. I was blown away.
I saw high school senior Tylesia Macdonald that night, in the lead role of Ruby—and she says it was more than a feel-good thing.
“At the beginning of the play they show you a clip of the water hoses and stuff, and acting it out just makes people realize that this really happened. When you’re on stage, it’s like something you do or something you say could really change the way somebody feels about themselves or the way somebody feels about a situation,” she says. And she wants to make a change: “History shouldn't repeat itself like that. Theater is a way to bring people together.”
Hope Road Youth and Community Theater performs a new show, “Last Night in Harlem,” at the University of Dayton Friday and Saturday. For more information and tickets check out One Night In Harlem.