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Too Good for His Own Good

Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre has survived for 20 years as a community theater on Evanston’s west side, and it may even survive Gorky the dancing bear. Last October, under artistic director Phillip Edward VanLear, the company mounted William Saroyan’s rarely revived 1958 comedy The Cave Dwellers, about a ragtag group of performers (and one expressive bruin) living in an abandoned theater on the Lower East Side of New York. With its multicultural cast and wide-ranging humanism, the show was typical of VanLear’s adventurous attitude toward the company, which sprang from the community center next door, near Dewey and Foster, and has traditionally oriented its productions to the surrounding black neighborhoods. In the six seasons since VanLear came on board, the actor and director has tried to turn the theater into a more professional operation and to raise its profile in the Chicago area. His tenure there has been marked by several notable successes, including Ladyhouse Blues, …And I Ain’t Finished Yet, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, and The African Company Presents Richard III. But shortly after the Saroyan play closed, VanLear and Mamie Smith-Faust, the theater’s executive director, decided that this season should be his last.

“He’s an exploration-type director, and that can be good,” says Smith-Faust. “Phillip will take something that you’ve never heard of before, and he’ll make something happen with it. [But] The Cave Dwellers didn’t really have any relevance to who we are as a people. I think he had a lot of other shows that basically were very risky. But that was the one that made me decide that maybe we need to sit down and see where he was going in the future. There were too many phenomenal pieces out there written by black writers for us not to be doing more showcasing, which is what we’re about as well.” Smith-Faust says she had mixed feelings about VanLear’s building a core group of performers and crew; though it undoubtedly strengthened productions, it also left fewer slots for the novices who depend upon community theater for experience. She also felt that VanLear, a busy actor who’s recently been cast in the Goodman’s revival of James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner, may have had too much on his plate. “I just felt that everything comes to an end, and it was time to do what we have been charged to do by our founders as well as the city.”

VanLear had been performing in Chicago for a decade when he came to Fleetwood-Jourdain, and he’s continued to distinguish himself as an actor and director. His productions of Home for the Chicago Theatre Company and Get Ready at Creative Arts Foundation won him Jeff nominations for best director, and he’s gotten strong notices for his acting in such shows as Blues for an Alabama Sky at the Goodman and Are You Now or Have You Ever Been…? at the Next Theatre. VanLear already had run his own community theater, the Aurora Theater Ensemble, but he had greater ambitions for Fleetwood-Jourdain. He says he clearly articulated his creative goals to the theater’s board when he took the job in 1995: “I said point-blank, ‘Look…I’ve done a community theater thing. I have no desire to do that. But I am really excited about taking a theater from here and moving it forward. Just take that next step and see what happens.”

He discovered soon enough that the company was tied to its community. A city program funded by Evanston’s department of parks and recreation, it operates on an annual budget of about $140,000 but is ineligible for the sort of grants that endow nonprofits, and the city wouldn’t allow VanLear to raise funds from outside sources. For long periods the company was without a program manager, and its marketing and public relations duties fell to the marketing director of the park district. “She has 150 programs to run, and–I think rightfully so, even though it was so maddening to me at the time–she just couldn’t justify doing the little extra that a theater needs to do, in terms of press releases and arrangements for photographs and videotaping and getting notices out.” At times, he says, he was disappointed by the lack of moral support from the parks and recreation board. “I think the board as a whole came to maybe 3 shows, maybe 4, out of 20….In terms of just city employees, and the city getting behind it, it just hasn’t happened.”

VanLear says the community was behind him, though he admits some people “put their back up a little bit” over his choice of plays and his multicultural casts. “Mamie said that for her The Cave Dwellers was the straw that broke the camel’s back. She said it was too esoteric, too cerebral, too far out there. All the different races of people, the bear. She said, ‘You believe in giving your audience what you feel they need. I believe in giving them what they want.’ What they want is A Raisin in the Sun. What they want is Yours Truly, Sempel. And I said, Mamie, I don’t have a problem doing that every now and then, but my philosophy was in educating people.

“And I guess she also felt that we had too many white people onstage, in some respects. She wasn’t crazy about that idea. She felt that maybe with a holiday play or something, it’s OK, but that two out of the four shows a season didn’t necessarily have to be multicultural. I said, Why not? If we’re doing five shows, one’s a holiday show, two are definitely black plays, and then we do two shows with a multicultural cast. I think that’s a good thing.”

Ironically, VanLear’s last play with Fleetwood-Jourdain is the sort of show that any black theater would consider a cause for celebration. Adapted by VanLear from a collection of poems by Angela Shannon, Root Woman is a highly accomplished production, using music and dance to dramatize the poet’s meditations on her African heritage and her experiences as a black woman in America. Smith-Faust thinks the show is wonderful, and VanLear says he’s “ecstatic…. This is the perfect show for me to say farewell.” It closes this Sunday.

Smith-Faust says that Fleetwood-Jourdain will hire visiting directors for its next season, which will begin in September. Before VanLear left, the two had agreed on a series of August Wilson plays (Fences, Two Trains Running, and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone), and she wants to make an annual event of Langston Hughes’s Black Nativity, which the company staged last December to negative reviews.

Now that VanLear’s tenure with Fleetwood-Jourdain is over, he’s focusing on his role as Luke, the no-account jazz trumpeter who comes home to die, in The Amen Corner. He’s also busy with plans for a new company, Four Planks Theater, a multicultural project he hopes to launch in Chicago next year.

“Believe it or not, even with our administration changing in D.C., this is not a bad time to start a theater,” VanLear says. “People are going to look very carefully at where they put their money, and a culturally diverse theater company in a city like Chicago is, I think, very attractive.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dorothy Perry.