Local play explores race, housing discrimination in Evanston


(Source: Leslie Brown)

Jelani Pitcher and Rachel Shapiro in “A Home on the Lake.” The play, written by Evanston residents Stephen Fedo and Tim Rhoze, discusses race and housing discrimination in Evanston.

Catherine Henderson, Assistant City Editor

The play “A Home on the Lake,” written by Stephen Fedo and Tim Rhoze, struck close to home for Evanston residents. Characters in the play referenced the familiar “special sauce” at Hecky’s Barbecue and the quintessential North Shore dream of owning a home on the lake. But the play tells a grave side of Evanston’s history as well — one of discriminatory housing practices and segregation.

“We’re still talking about matters of greed, but we’re also still talking about matters of family and dreaming and hoping,” said Rhoze, artistic director of Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre. “It’s up to the audience to decide what other things haven’t changed.”

The play, running from April 19 through May 20 at the Piven Theater, 927 Noyes St., is a collaboration between the Piven Theatre Workshop and Fleetwood-Jourdain. The show was sold out during opening weekend.

With an ensemble of six actors, the play features an LGBTQ, biracial family in the present and two families, one white and one black, in the 1920s. The show follows the families as they are all impacted by the changing housing market and discrimination in Evanston.

Rhoze, who co-wrote and directed the play, said he created the story based on the theme of this Piven season: home. Though he always intended to direct the play, he decided to join the writing team to illuminate the creation of the 5th Ward “as we know it.”

Rhoze said he and Fedo chose to intertwine stories from the past and the present to illustrate that past actions continue to affect life in Evanston today. Though he emphasized that the characters themselves are fictional, Rhoze said historical housing discrimination in Evanston was real.

“This play takes a fictional story, a story borne out of the imagination of the playwrights, to humanize what might have been,” Rhoze said. “It deals with what home really means to people. Home doesn’t necessarily mean land. It means the very land where their ancestors settled. For other people, home is wherever the family is.”

In the process, Rhoze said he used interviews from Nina Kavin, co-founder of Dear Evanston, as inspiration and research for the script. He said he had heard stories of black-owned homes by the lake being loaded onto flatbeds and driven to the west side of Evanston, referenced in one of the opening scenes of the play.

In her work for Dear Evanston — a Facebook page discussing race and inequality in the city — Kavin said she has focused on discussions of violence. Over the years, she said she began developing relationships with Evanston residents, particularly those in the black community.

Kavin said she interviewed Evanston residents on her own, but Piven Theatre contacted her to collaborate. She said her interviews provided “flavor and texture” for the playwrights.

“I started talking to (residents) about their lives and opinions,” Kavin said. “Dear Evanston became a forum for stories about people whose voices are less often heard in Evanston.”

Kavin discussed the systematic efforts to keep black people from living on the lakefront. As black people moved to Evanston from the south, she said they often had no choice but to live in the 5th Ward due to housing costs and discrimination elsewhere. Still, she said white people needed black people to work in Evanston and live nearby to support the economy.

However, Kavin said a dominant theme in her interviews was the idea that black people living in the 5th Ward created a self-sufficient and cohesive community despite facing racism and discrimination. Still, she said the community lost a lot of black institutions due to desegregation.

Kavin interviewed 5th Ward resident Jerome Summers, former Evanston/Skokie School District 65 board member, for the project. Summers’ family has lived in Evanston since the 1890s, he told Kavin.

“(Racism is) the water we swim in,” Summers told Kavin. “Evanston’s image of itself is not even close to the reality of itself. You know, we talk about ‘We love our diversity,’ and it’s true. As long as it’s gone by 3:30.”

Though the people Kavin interviewed are not portrayed as characters in the play, she urged people to watch the interviews on the Dear Evanston website because she said very few white people from Evanston are aware of the “richness” of these stories.

Kavin described the resilience, love and community in the 5th Ward despite massive barriers and challenges.

“There are a lot of people — and I was one of them several years ago — who knew absolutely nothing about the history of Evanston and the role that racism and discrimination played in this city,” Kavin said. “I hope people are inspired to learn more about the city that we live in.”

Rodney Greene, former Evanston city clerk, attended the play on Sunday and said it provided insight into the history of the city and how white people took land on the lakefront from the black community. At one point in the city’s history, he said, black people were not even allowed to swim in the lake in Evanston, another fact addressed in the play.

Greene said even though Evanston has come a long way since then, housing is still difficult to afford.

“It depends on who had the money, who had the homes on the lake,” Greene said. “Back then it was almost like a gated community.”

Rhoze said people should come to the show with an open mind and prepare to be entertained and learn something about Evanston. He also said he hopes the show will lead to conversations about race in the city.

Rhoze said he was happy to collaborate with Piven on a project addressing such important themes as home, history and family.

As the character Cynthia says in the show, “Everyone should wake up to a view of the sun rising over the lake.”

This story was updated to clarify that Tim Rhoze was referring to historical housing discrimination in his statements about intertwining stories from the past and present.

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