A Rhoze By Any Other Name

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