Pathway Impact: Detroit School of Arts’ Yellow Brick Road

Detroit School of Art's theatrical business class students putting up posters

At the Educational Theatre Foundation (ETF), increasing theatre access for students, educators, schools, and communities around the country is a top priority. And one of the programs making it a reality is Pathway. This $10,000 grant allows high school theatre programs to produce a play or musical rooted in racial equity, hire professionals of color to mentor students, and facilitate community events that encourage conversations about race and inequality issues.

As part of the 2023-24 program, five schools were awarded the grant, including the Detroit School of Arts (DSA). ETF chatted with theatre director Jennifer Leija to learn how Pathway is affecting the school’s theatre program.

Building Theatre Education in Detroit

Established in 2019, DSA’s theatere program is the only high school in the Detroit Public School District to put on a licensed musical each year. They’re fully funded by teachers, fundraisers, grants, and donations, with a theatre season that includes three mainstage productions and several studio shows and events. And while the program has found a balance between theatre and academic excellence, with their theatre majors earning the distinction of Valedictorian for the last three years, growing the program with recognizable titles has still been cost prohibitive.

Leija says she’d often get asked when they could put on shows like Dreamgirls or The Wiz and often had the same response: “We can’t… unless you can find me $10,000 somewhere!” While Leija had worked hard to raise her operational budget to a point where she could afford the rights to these shows, the Pathway grant made those ambitions even more plausible.

After finding out about the grant, she pitched it to her theatrical business class, who started working on the budget and application as a class. “When we got the news we won the grant, that just changed the game,” she says. From her set designers to her sound team, the extra funds gave them the opportunity to flex their skills and “just play.”

The Wiz is a huge undertaking. It requires a great deal of money, and I can’t even imagine trying to pull off the costumes for this, let alone the lights, sound, and set, without the grant support we currently have,” she says.

The Impact of the Pathway Grant

DSA students rehearsing The Wiz

As part of the Pathway program, selected schools are required to choose a show that opens the doors for conversations around racial equity and diversity, which has been a big win for DSA. “The theatre world has been very closed to people of color for a very long time. So when we look at something like The Wiz, it’s this magical flashpoint of Black folks in musical theatre,” Leija says. “It’s for Black folks, by Black folks, about the joy of Black folks. The response to this particular show, which I wouldn’t be able to do without the grant, is well beyond anything I could have imagined.”

For Leija, that was evident in the level of student interest. Where last year she “struggled to fill her chorus,” this year there has been a rush to get involved. “It’s a brand-new world,” she says. “It’s really incredible… because this piece is so inspirational to my community.”

Bringing the Community into the Fold

That inspiration has also encouraged the program to invite the community into the experience. As part of their production of The Wiz, DSA’s theatre department is hosting community talkback sessions after performances – an opportunity for community members to come in after a show, enjoy lunch, ask questions, and play games crafted by students.

“The very first thing [students] said was ‘Ms. Leija, our families don’t know enough about the theatre.’ So they built what we’ve been calling “Black Theatre Jeopardy” that’s focused on facts about black theatre, performances, and shows. There’s a lot of Wiz facts on there,” she says.

On the way out of their theatre, they’ve also built their very own “yellow brick wall,” with thoughtful questions, like “do you think people of color feel comfortable in theatre spaces and did your experience today change your opinion about theatre?” on Post-it notes and posters to help facilitate conversation.

The sessions have also become an opportunity to raise awareness for theatre. While Detroit has one of the largest theatre districts outside of New York City, it isn’t often accessible for the students and community. The DSA performances have allowed younger kids and families to experience theatre for the first time while also giving students a chance to educate their families about the work they’re putting into preparation for the show.

DSA students rehearsing The Wiz

Modeling Opportunities for Students

Mentorship is also a critical part of the Pathway program, with schools required to bring in theatre professionals and performers of color to work with students. For Leija, the benefit was two-fold, with mentors helping fill in the gaps for staff, while also giving her students a glimpse into theatre career possibilities.

For DSA, that’s been realized with the addition of choreographer Seycon Nadia Chea, who has helped create the “spectacle,” of The Wiz, while also giving students an example of a career trajectory in theatre. “You simply can’t imagine yourself doing the job until you see someone that looks like you doing it,” Leija says.

A Yellow Brick Road to Lasting Change

With their production of The Wiz set to premiere on April 18, 2024, Leija is already looking forward to the grant’s impact. For starters, the focus is on growing the program, and thanks to the Pathway grant, Leija is aiming to double DSA’s operating budget. “I know that sounds so mercenary, talking about the money first, but it’s the most important part of what keeps the department going,” she says. “With a larger operating budget, I can do bigger, more community-known shows and that will draw more students and community members.”

More important, however, is the lasting impact the growing theatre program can have on students. “I don’t care if a single one of my kids goes on to be a theatre major in college. What I care about is that they take empathy and problem-solving skills with them into adulthood,” she says. “Their ability to talk to people, to organize, to problem solve, to see things from other perspectives, to think deeply, to read deeply, to memorize, to focus, and plan for a long-term project – those skills are the things that make better human beings. My kids are already really great, so I’m just putting the cherry on top.”

A poster for DSA's production of The Wiz.