The sounds of a keyboard and drums filled the banquet hall as dancers practiced their moves and actors rehearsed musical numbers.
In front of the stage, rows of chairs were lined up behind circular tables covered in pink cloth and set with small artificial bouquets. This is where the audience will sit and dine when Evelyn Graves Drama Productions performs Behold the Man, a musical about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
“Our new theater will be at 50th Street and Woodland Avenue, though it might not be completed until my great-grandchildren grow up,” company director Cassandra Graves half-joked.
For now, the company performs at the banquet facility inconspicuously located in a residential neighborhood in Yeadon, just outside Southwest Philadelphia.
Behold the Man is one of at least seven Christian dramas performed by Evelyn Graves Drama Productions, based in Southwest Philadelphia and Yeadon, Pa. The drama company was started in 1971 when Evelyn Graves brought friends and family from Southwest Philadelphia together to produce a play in her home.
“In the 1970s we had quite a few issues going on – gang wars, racial discrimination, educational frustration – so she used skits to bring peace and charity to the community,” Cassandra Graves said of her mother.
Graves grew up acting in her mother’s productions, but stopped when she enrolled in Millersville University, whereafter she worked in television. In 1982, Evelyn called her daughter for help.
“Aren’t you ever coming home?” Graves remembered her mother asking.
“Oh no, I’m very comfortable working in television,” Graves recalled replying. Nevertheless, she returned to Southwest Philadelphia that year to work as the drama company’s administrator, where she is now the director.
As director, Graves conducts blocking (stage positioning) for her actors, teaches community art classes and even performs with the cast when necessary.
“In nonprofit community organizations, one person doesn’t do just one thing,” she said. “I constantly take off one hat and put another one on.”
Last year, when she traveled with a select group of company members to perform Behold the Man in Seoul, South Korea, Graves had to play Mary, Jesus’ mother.
“I had never stood on stage and seen that many people in my entire life. To do that performance, I looked up at the sixth balcony, where you couldn’t even see folks’ faces,” she said of her performance at David Yonggi Cho’s Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul. “But I prefer to have other people do the acting.”
Most actors in the troupe are from the Southwest Philadelphia community, and some are formally trained. According to Graves, many actors with the company were once audience members who got involved after seeing a production.
For community members who seek training in the arts, the Evelyn Graves School of Performing Arts offers dance, voice, drama, ballet and drumming lessons. Cassandra said her students at the performing arts school range from ages 5 to 80.
One of the women who attends the school of performing arts is Shirley Tyson, who started acting with Evelyn Graves Drama Productions in 1974. She will not only act in Behold the Man, but she also sewed all of the costumes for the production.
“My mother was a sewer, and with her equipment I used to make some outfits myself,” Tyson said. “Back when they had home economics, I would make small things. And God just used those skills when I got here.”
Though Tyson is comfortable and excited to perform Behold the Man, she wasn’t always so at ease as an actress.
“When I first started out, I was very shy and very withdrawn,” she said. “When they put you on stage – I wouldn’t even look people in the eye. But once you start acting, you come out of yourself.”
According to Graves, whatever goals cast members have in the arts, the company works to guide them in that direction. She noted that hundreds of choreographers and artistic directors came out of the Evelyn Graves School of Performing Arts. Some alumni of the school, she said, appear regularly on Broadway, in feature films and on television.
However, the financial success of some of their students does not carry over to the production company.
“We still find ourselves chasing the almighty dollar,” Graves lamented. “But if we thought we were going to be millionaires in this business, we wouldn’t be here.”
– Text, images and video by Jacob Colon