Shortly after the pandemic shut down the theaters, Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre artistic director Timothy Edward Rhoze joined a Zoom meeting of more than 40 artists, all leaders of Evanston’s many arts organizations.
“In that virtual meeting, I was one of maybe three African Americans in the room. That’s just the makeup of arts organizations in Evanston. And the North Shore. And Illinois. And the country,” he said. Rhoze had a plan for change, and he shared it with a zeal that got people talking.
“Fleetwood-Jourdain had been reaching out to all these organizations to say, hey, enough is enough. If you want to put a BLM sign on your lawn, that’s great. But now you have to put things into action. Without naming names, the people who had not reached out previously were the people I was speaking to in that Zoom room.”
His message was both simple and formidable.
“As artists, we have a pulpit to spread love to this community. I felt like it was time for us to stop operating out of a vacuum and start pooling our intellect, our ambitions, our talents,” he said.
Now those words are embodied in action: Rhoze, along with Evanston’s The Musical Offering and Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre, is a founding charter member of the newly created Evanston Performing Arts Collective.
EPAC is launching its first performance on New Year’s Day, a virtual, multidisciplinary streaming performance of Jason Robert Brown’s (aptly titled) “The New World” (a song from Brown’s 1995 show, Songs for a New World, the first produced piece by the Tony-winning composer of Parade and The Bridges of Madison County). Theo Ubique’s music director, Jeremy Ramey, is overseeing a cast featuring some of Chicago’s finest musical theater performers, backed by vocalists from Evanston Township High School, their voices augmented by Black Ballerina star Kara Roseborough‘s choreography. The entire “installation” will be ASL interpreted when it streams, free, on YouTube.
The New Year’s Day event is but the beginning of an ambitious plan for 2021. The Collective has additional installations planned the first of March, May, and July. Come August, EPAC has its sights on an outdoor, socially distanced concert. Every performance is underscored by the theme “Celebrating Life, Community and the Arts.”
Rhoze says Rick Ferguson, cofounder of the 20-year-old The Musical Offering, was one of the first to reach out after that initial Zoom meeting.
“I was sort of crying after the meeting, I was so moved by what Tim said. I knew I needed to e-mail immediately,” Ferguson said. “Through the Collective, we want to marshal the artistic forces we have in Evanston and try to find a way of really reaching out and trying to bring us together as a community,” he added.
“In upheaval periods, whatever they may be, I’ve seen over and over how artists step in and help people process what they’re feeling and experiencing. And we in the arts are suffering in our own ways because of what’s going on, with so many of us unemployed. Music can be a general mirror for what’s going on. It can serve as a healing force. It can be an agent for social change,” Ferguson finished.
“We’ve been through protests and marches for at least several hundred years here in the U.S.,” Rhoze said. “Black Lives Matter isn’t a new movement, it’s a continuation of the work that’s been done in the past. What the pandemic did was unveil what many of us already knew but some people were in denial about. We are a community and a city that is divided.
“My intent has always been not just how do I get more bodies in the seats, but how do I make a cultural change in Evanston? For me it was a no-brainer to say, let’s get these organizations together to collaborate on celebrations of life and community. And I think more people are open to listening and doing that now,” Rhoze said.
The cast of the January 1 performance reflects that agency. The group includes Harmony France, founding artistic director of Firebrand Theatre, the first Equity musical theater company in the country expressly committed to employing and empowering women on and off the stage. The professional cast also features Averis I. Anderson (who was supposed to open in Mercury Theater’s Priscilla, Queen of the Desert before the pandemic cancelled the show and left the theater up for sale), Matthew Hunter, and Kyrie Anderson.
Theo Ubique came on board after Evanston 8th Ward alderman Ann Rainey urged them to meet with Fleetwood-Jourdain and The Musical Offering. Rainey, long a habitue of TU productions in their former Rogers Park home, was instrumental in getting the theater over the border into Evanston. “We were willing to put $1 million into the theater building. I really wanted it to be something. We had five theaters interested in that. Theo Ubique was the ideal choice,” Rainey said of the city’s ante. In addition to providing funding for the build-out, Evanston made the 721 Howard address part of a tax increment financing District (TIF), which comes with significant local tax breaks.
Music Director Ramey finds the opening salvo of Brown’s “A New World” speaks to the times.
“To some degree, there’s a shared experience among artists during this pandemic,” he said. “I was trying to develop my virtual/digital skills before this year, but now I’ve gone from watching how-to videos on Zoom videos to actually doing, well, everything virtually. There are 77 tracks in this stream, and everybody’s making a video of themselves singing their part, and they’ve all got to be put together. Before, I’d have five musicians in a pit to deal with.
“The difference in what I know now from the beginning of the year is huge. Virtual concerts never take the place of the real thing, but I hope people see this and realize that we’re a community. That there is this shared experience among all of us during this. The title of the number—that’s what, I hope, we’re going to when we’re back,” Ramey said.
Rhoze’s vision extends well beyond this year’s quintet of offerings.
“I believe that Evanston could be this mega hub for the arts. We’ve got the talent here. We’ve got the accessibility to public transportation. We’ve been able to thrive on the ambitions of all those who are like-minded, who say, ‘I want to be part of that movement that moves us forward,’ even knowing these are some of the darkest days this country has ever seen.” v
Fleetwood-Jourdain is also teaming up with Mudlark Theater and Piven Theatre Workshop for a New Year’s Eve broadcast of the new play Am I the Only One Here?, written by an ensemble of youth actors and artists from the three companies. The broadcast begins at 7 PM, Thursday, December 31, 2020 at givesmart.com.