An interview with Tim Rhoze, artistic director, Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre
If you’re a regular at Evanston’s Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre, you know that although the play’s the thing, Tim Rhoze treats his audience members as though they’re just as much in a starring role.
At each performance, before the lights go down, Rhoze takes the stage in the 150-seat theater and greets his guests: “How ya’ll doin'? How yo’ mama and them?” he asks.
Then he instructs the audience--a racially mixed group split almost evenly Black and white--to turn to one another. "Say, 'Hello, neighbor,'" he tells them, which they do, in unison.
When the show’s over, Rhoze is at the door to receive reviews and thank each and every visitor for coming. “I’m the face of our theater, and they’re my most important reviewers,” he tells me during a recent interview at his office.
Tall, handsome, and composed, with a mellifluous voice and gleaming smile, Rhoze, 57, is the epitome of a leading man. His list of credits is long. He's starred on stages in Detroit, Chicago, and on Broadway, as recurring characters on TV series including “The Practice,” “Friends,” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” and he's a prolific director.
But Rhoze’s role as Artistic Director of FJT for the past seven years may be his most important. It’s where he’s leveraging acting into activism: using the theater and theatrical arts to create community and unify Evanstonians across race, culture, age, and income--on the stage, behind the scenes, and in the seats.
“I’m loving that I’m using the theater as a way to bring the four corners of Evanston together,” says Rhoze. “When I first started, I didn’t have that mission, but it became an obsession, a goal,” he says. “I have a passion for it, because I’m part of that success story.”
Founded in 1979, FJT’s mission has been to tell Black American and African diaspora-centered stories from original plays to Broadway hits, with a focus on diversity and excellence. Rhoze’s immediate next steps are to engage lower-income Evanston youth in this mission and to encourage more participation and attendance by 20- and 30-somethings.
Before landing here, Rhoze admits, all he did was live in Evanston, pay his taxes, and put his daughter through a great school system. “I didn’t know anything about community. I was just here, soaking up all the good Evanston had to offer me,” he says. “And now this is my ministry, my pulpit, making a difference.”
Rhoze’s confidence and charisma belie the challenges he faced growing up. His story is one of devastating loss, of struggle and serendipity, of love and luck, of courage and determination. He attributes his success as much to fortunate moments and supportive people who materialized along his path as he does to his own talent. It’s these experiences, it seems, that have brought Rhoze to this place and this purpose: taking his turn in a supporting role to help others reach their potential.
“I’m not a millionaire, but I’m a billionaire when it comes to what has happened in my life,” he says. “I could have been sitting in prison. I could have been dead. But you find along the way that there’s someone who cares. There’s going to be somebody that finds you and you have to be willing and open to accept what they give you.”
Born to a blue-collar family in predominantly Black Detroit, Rhoze lived with his parents and older brother Charles, Jr. A younger sister came later. Both of Rhoze’s parents worked. His dad was a night-shift postal supervisor, who, Rhoze says, was a true renaissance man--an opera singer, an avid checkers player, and a wonderful bowler. “He always played violin, and one of his avocations was acting,” Rhoze says.
Tragedy struck the family early on. When Rhoze was just four years old, Charles, Jr., who was six, was struck and killed by a car.
“My parents had gone shopping and left us in the care of a babysitter,” Rhoze tells me. “We were outside playing in the grass and the dirt. And one of my brother’s friends grabbed me, and said ‘Your brother’s been hit, he’s been hit.’ So I ran through a shortcut through the houses and I saw my brother laying on the ground. It was my brother. And there was a police car. And I could see a guy sitting in the police car. And that memory stops there.
"The next thing I remember," says Rhoze, "was my mother and my father and our minister, Rev. Audrey and my brother was lying in state in the funeral home. I remember them walking me down so I could see him. I remember that. And everything else is a void.”
Rhoze says he doesn’t remember his brother’s funeral, and that after Charles, Jr.’s death, all photos of him were taken down at home. “It didn’t even hit me until I got much older,” he says. “But yeah, my family, and many families, we had our own things to overcome.”
Rhoze partially attributes his difficult childhood to this early trauma. He floundered at school almost from day one, and spent much of his time in the principal’s office or juvenile detention, from where his parents would frequently arrive together to retrieve him.
He tested so poorly that he was labeled functionally illiterate and spent his days with six other kids in a small classroom for ‘remedials.’ “I was in that classroom where other kids would walk past and knock on the door and laugh, ‘Ahh, you stupid sons-of-bitches!’ I was that kid,” he says.
Young Rhoze’s problem: he could read words, but couldn’t comprehend what they meant. “It was a learning disability,” he says. “But it was also, in the way that so many kids got labeled and continue to get labeled today, all I needed was a different way of learning. They put me in a cookie-cutter classroom, sit at a desk all day. Well, I didn’t want to sit at a desk for so long. I wanted to stand up and put my hands on clay or wood, or a stage prop.”
So Rhoze skipped school, loitered, ran around with the wrong people. “We weren’t gun toters. We weren’t robbers or drug dealers. But we were delinquents, and we could cause some havoc,” he says. Rhoze’s dad could count on having his daytime nap interrupted at least once a week to pick him up from school. “God bless him,” says Rhoze. “It was always something. I was always, always fighting. I was a fucking handful.”
But if his brother’s sudden death contributed to Rhoze’s childhood challenges, it was another chance moment, this time with his father, that marked a dramatic turn in his life.
“It was one night when I about 10 years old,” Rhoze tells me. “My dad was performing at the Detroit Repertory Theater doing a play called ‘Ceremonies in Dark Old Men.’ His character was Mr. Jenkins. And he was trying to memorize his lines. And he said, Timothy--he called me Timothy--I want you to help me learn my lines. You’re going to read all the other characters, and I’m Mr. Jenkins.”
Rhoze pauses. His eye fill with tears.
“So we did it, and then my father left for work,” he continues. “I was by myself, and I took that book upstairs. I read that play to the very end, and I understood it. I couldn’t believe it. And to this very day, I can read a play in an afternoon.”
Rhoze says it was the format. “I loved the fact that the character’s name was HERE. And what they said was HERE. And in parentheses was the action they had to take,” he says. “I took that book to school,” he remembers. “It didn’t cure everything for me, but I began to fight through my challenges. Because now I knew I wasn’t stupid.”
When he was older, Rhoze took a theater workshop, loved Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams, got through high school and college, and became a prototype engineer in the automobile industry. “I was making good money,” Rhoze says. “I had no idea you could do theater for a living, so I danced around it a lot. I joined an improv group because it was something to do on Monday nights.”
But one evening, a friend encouraged him to audition for a play at Detroit’s Harmony Park Playhouse, a 40-seat theater in the basement of an old hotel. It was his first audition, but he got the lead, and the play’s director Michael Pinkney became Rhoze’s mentor. “He told me I had something,” Rhoze remembers. “He said, ‘you’ve been lost but you’ve found a home.’ And when I turned 30, I decided I wanted to do this for a living.”
He started coming back and forth for auditions in Chicago, at the Remains Theater, the Organic Theater, Steppenwolf, Northlight. He auditioned at the Goodman for a play called 'Puddin’ and Pete,' and got the role. “I packed up my car, started rehearsal, and never looked back,” he says.
Here’s more from my interview with Tim Rhoze.
DE: Given that theater played a part in helping you get over trauma and some rough times as a kid, do you think it can help other traumas, say young victims or perpetrators of gun violence? Can it help reduce gun violence?
TR: There isn’t any one formula, of course, to reducing youth gun violence. That’s systemic and the product of so many things. But I do think that it can play a role for young people who find themselves lost in the system, lost in their community, or in the world.
Theater can be a place to land that can give them a sense of belonging, another kind of family. For kids who are finding it hard to achieve things academically, as I did, theater might be a place for them. They can discover they’re not stupid, but special. Where schools treat everyone the same, as a director, I have to treat each actor as an individual.
DE: Do you do outreach to kids living in at-risk situations?
TR: We collaborate with Second Baptist Evanston from time to time, with Family Focus Evanston, with Youth & Opportunity United, places that work with young kids.
One of our bigger plans for next year is that our theater programming will be held at the Fleetwood-Jourdain Community Center. We’ll have two after-school theater-based programs, one for five- to 10-year-olds and one for teens to give them a sense of play, to give them self-esteem. We’ll also bring a number of kids from the after-school program at Mason Park to our theater and introduce them to storytelling and to what happens behind the scenes in terms of lighting, set, and costume design.
You know, we pressure our kids to go to college. But not all careers depend on college. Theater can be another door. As part of Evanston’s Parks and Recreation division, we give kids another option. We need to help kids understand that not everyone is out to hustle you. And that’s hard to believe when you come from certain areas in any community where you’re being taken advantage of, being hustled, being pressured into being part of a group, a gang.
Once you find where you land, then you find your purpose in life. Maya Angelou had a troubled past. She never graduated from college. But that never stopped her from becoming an accomplished person and taking her accomplishments and her passion and her artistry and making the world a better place.
DE: And your moment was when your dad left you with that play.
TR: That play turned me around academically. I still had a lot of social growing up to do. I was still in and out of juvenile home. And that was because of a lot of pressures I succumbed to. Growing up in Detroit, there was a lot of peer pressure. Just coming home from school, you had to be willing to defend yourself, to defend your group. That play taught me that I wasn’t ignorant. My whole journey was mixed with good and bad, and theater was someplace where I felt I belonged.
DE: You say you're passionate about bringing Evanstonians together. Why do you care?
TR: Because I was raised that way. My mother’s father was Sicilian. So my mother was very fair-skinned, my father was darker skinned. But that was never an issue. We didn’t talk about race or the differences we have. It’s always been important to me to go beyond us getting along, to living together and enjoying one another, experiencing our differences and raising our children in a beautiful melting pot of styles.
DE: Do you think we do?
TR: I don’t think we do it enough. There’s moments where it’s happening, and I think this theater is one of the more consistent moments where it does happen.
DE: Your audience is diverse racially. But what about socioeconomically?
TR: I think it spans that spectrum as well. I make sure that we’re reaching out into the community to see that people who want to come can come. Our tickets are $20 each, but I walk around with coupons that I’ll comp., so a person who probably couldn’t afford it can come. The members of our Prime Time Players, our senior-citizen drama club, they hand out these coupons too so people can get 50 percent off at the door. And everyone who that person brings along gets the same discount. So they all pay $10, it promotes this theater, and puts butts in the seat. It saves me from paying for ads.
DE: Do you feel like most Evanstonians know about FJT?
TR: I think more people should know about it, and more people are getting to know it. It’s moved around a lot. It used to be at Family Focus. It used to be at Haven Middle School. It used to be in a classroom in this building. Then at some point before I came, FJT began to share the theater at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center with Next Theatre. FJT uses their stage in the summertime. Our branding is still summertime theater. But starting this season, we’re going to start doing winter productions. We’ll use the Piven space for our first winter production, “Gift of the Magi.”
DE: Are all FJT plays focused on the African American experience?
TR: A majority of them are. I’m always looking for plays that include other cultures, races, but what you’re going to see mostly is people who look like me. That’s our mission. I’m always on the lookout for new plays and I’m always reading because our story is not myopic.
DE: Do the plays you produce always focus on the issue of race, racism?
TR: No. For example, you could do “Proof.” You can take a good story, and insert African American players. You can do color-blind casting, if the story allows it. But, I wouldn’t do “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” for example, though Terrence Howard and James Earl Jones were in that. I see no need for that because some stories are written for a specific race or culture. You wouldn’t take August Wilson’s “Fences” and cast it with all-white actors. Because it’s a good story, but it’s specifically about race.
Now, something like “Death of a Salesman,” that’s a possibility. It’s amazing, because if you cast it with Black actors, all of a sudden it plays differently and has a different cultural rhythm. You can’t really get away from that.
DE: So you want your plays to have characters that exist for reasons other than they are the target of racism.
TR: Yes. We can always assume everything is in that context.
DE: So how do you choose plays?
TR: Part of my mission is to find young African American playwrights, those whose voices aren’t being heard in the mainstream of theater but who have talent and will draw a crowd, put butts in the seats. And that takes a good story.
Take “Sweet” [by Harrison David Rivers, one of the three FJT plays Rhoze directed this past summer]. It gave me the opportunity to cast three young African Americans ranging in age from 17 to 22 in a story that had nothing to do with race. Yes, the characters were Black in a rural part of Kansas, but the story was about love and betrayal. So that was a good find. It’s hard to find good plays about African Americans that aren’t steeped in the story of racism.
DE: Do you ever do comedies?
TR: It’s hard to find an African American comedy. They do exist. They’re steeped in a different kind of humor. And here’s the thing about comedies. So you’ll have an audience of 120 people, half white, half Black. And Blacks will laugh at something because they know why it’s funny. But the white folks don’t get it, or if they do, they don’t know if it’s okay for them to laugh, so they wait for permission from the Black audience members.
So there’s some humor when you need permission to laugh, and there’s other inside humor when a white audience just won’t get it. Sometimes things are universal. But I think there’s a bit of political correctness that’s white-person’s baggage, when they come to see plays that are about African American culture or cultures that are different than their own.
DE: But it doesn’t work the other way?
TR: I don’t think it does. If two white people called each other ‘cracker,’ a Black person would laugh. But take the word ‘N---.’ If it’s used in the context of a joke, you’ll see Black people laugh, but if you’re white you think, ‘It’s not okay that Black people are laughing.’ Whatever your opinion is of that word, it’s still used a lot, and it’s used a lot by African Americans to take ownership of the word and insert it into humorous situations. It just is.
Mind you, if you’re a writer, and you’re writing a novel, a poem, a rap song, you use words that are derogatory and in many cases hurtful and painful to hear. But the story has to be told using the language with which we communicate. So that’s what you have to do.
One of the interesting things about that word, it’s a word Richard Pryor used a lot. He had visited Africa, and he was astounded because he saw all these beautiful, black, blue-black, people. He said, ‘You know, when I looked around, you know who I didn’t see? I didn’t see one N--.’ He meant, he saw this race of people who looked like him and the people he grew up with, but that they were royal, they had pride about being African and being descendants of Africans. And he said, ‘I don’t want to use that word anymore.’
And that’s why that word will always be a hot button, even within the black community. It’s infused in most writings by African Americans in one way or another. It doesn’t bother me in the context of writing. I don’t go around using the word. But I think that if you take that word and you just assign a letter to it, the ‘N-word,’ I think does more harm than good.
As adults, to speak the truth about what you feel about the word and to use the word, is far more intellectual and meaningful than not to. Don’t dumb down the conversation by saying ‘the N-word.’ It doesn’t make you a very bad person, if you’re discussing the word, to say the word and explain why you’re against it.
DE: With all the challenges you faced in your life, was it your personality, a drive to overcome, that got you here--or was it luck?
TR: I’m competitive with myself by nature. I’m afraid of heights. So I’ve gone to the Grand Canyon and stood on the edge
to conquer my fear. I’m determined to not let an outside factor be the reason I fail at something. I can overcome virtually everything. And theater has honed that because you get rejected over and over again. I grew a thick skin. I kept training. I studied other plays and actors.
But I also found good people, or they found me. My parents, my counselor Ms. Muson at school who always told me she believed in me and never gave up on me. Michael Pinkney. My ex-wife and our daughter Kara. It takes someone. You hope it’s someone in the family. Or in the school. It takes the community to be a part of someone’s success. If you can change one person’s life for the better, your life was worth being here."
FJT is located at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center, 927 Noyes St., Evanston
Information: (847) 866-5914; fjtheatre.com
Read about the awards FJT won last month: http://bit.ly/2zBgxEG