Photo by Christina Robertson

Growing up in Detroit, Tim Rhoze struggled in school. He read the words, but asked himself what it meant. His father, an actor with the long-lived Detroit Repertory Theatre, sometimes took his young son along to his rehearsals and, offstage, had the boy deliver the other characters’ lines to assist him in learning his own. Young Rhoze found himself “consuming plays” as fast as he could get his hands on them. He came to learn how plays are structured and to understand what makes them flow. The stories and their meanings came alive for him in this context. This awakening positively affected his work at school and directly influenced his future.

Initially Mr. Rhoze followed his father’s footsteps into Detroit Rep Theatre. As a young man he found conversation among theater people stimulating, he loved the social scene after hours, and he loved the work. This sense of community within the theater, the personal enrichment he gained through its acquaintance, made a lasting impression upon him. Though he held various other jobs – he was at one time a prototype engineer for a steel stamping company within the auto industry – the die was cast. The meat of his professional life for the past several decades has been on and around the stage and television.

Mr. Rhoze expanded his knowledge with industrial film work and set building; he willingly took on “grunt work.” It helped pay the bills, and he learned the bones of the industry this way. “I have a true understanding and appreciation for all those who work for and with theater, from acting and directing to the people who sweep the theater after a performance,” says Mr. Rhoze.

Mr. Rhoze eventually came to settle in Chicago. He went to television and voice over work to help support the family once his daughter Kara was born. Mr. Rhoze has appeared on “Chicago Hope,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Friends.” He speaks with higher regard, however, about the work he did with the Goodman, Victory Gardens, and Steppenwolf theaters.

The move to Evanston came 21 years ago. It seemed a “family place” with the strong sense of community where he and his then wife, Jacqueline, looked to raise a child. It was not long before he was introduced to the manager of the Fleetwood-Jourdain Community Center, who was seeking a replacement for its former theater director. Mr. Rhoze was asked to step in. He saw the position as having a broader reach than simply managing what happens under the lights, and as an opportunity to deliver more than just live entertainment. “Community just gets in your blood,” he says.

Mr. Rhoze says, “An artistic director must lead. And must accept their role in the greater community, bringing the ‘What if…’ out there.” This mind-expanding concept, the “What if…,” informs much of Mr. Rhoze’s work, stimulating the collective imagination of his audiences and the greater community and elevating their sense of what is possible.

Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre has had many locations and incarnations in its 36 years. For the past six its home has been a 150-seat theater inside the Noyes Cultural Center, where Mr. Rhoze offers his personal touch by thanking patrons in person as they exit. Under his nurturing, FJT’s programming has blossomed. Beyond their summertime season, the FJT umbrella now includes Tater Tot Theater (for 5-to-7 year-old actors), Evanston Children’s Theater (for 8-to-14 year-olds), and The PrimeTime Players, which gets seniors into the act with games and exercises, readings and performance field trips. Adult acting workshops are offered (twice a year, free to Evanston residents), along with select summer camps and “Pop Up Theater,” which has occurred in places such as Lovelace Park and the downtown Farmers’ Market. Dates and times for these mini performances are posted on FJT’s Facebook page 24-48 hours in advance. Outreach efforts have brought them into Evanston public schools, the library, the Levy Center, Ecology Center, and Fleetwood-Jourdain Center, as well as creative collaborative work with Youth Organizations Umbrella (Y.O.U.).

Mr. Rhoze shifts any accolades from himself to the theater’s spectrum of current and longstanding supporters, beginning with Evanston’s former mayor, Lorraine Morton, whom Mr. Rhoze now regards as a personal friend. He cites Dolores Holmes, Jerry Sizemore and Hecky Powell, among others, as staunch believers in FJT’s cultural significance, crediting them with its success today. He says he is very grateful for the support of the current City administration as well. “We have a brilliant City Manager, Mayor and City Council who are committed to making this a wonderful place to live,” Mr. Rhoze says. He also feels the love growing for FJT within the general public. When he began, increasing audience diversity was one of his goals. Although he only selects plays that he likes, he tries to choose those the entire community will respond to. Increased ticket sales indicate what was once an overwhelmingly African-American audience (80-90%) has evolved, reaching a balanced 50-50, a fact that makes Mr. Rhoze very happy.

To be sure, much of this increase in ticket sales reflects the quality of FJT’s productions. This summer’s “Why not Me? A Sammy Davis Jr. Story” packed the house, receiving excellent reviews. Mr. Rhoze authored this imaginative juxtaposition of the crooner at his prime and the superstar in his waning days. Beginning in August he stages another original work, “Maya’s Last Poem.”

Mr. Rhoze was inspired upon hearing that Maya Angelou had been at work on a final book of poetry when she died. His play picks up where she left off in that it offers a “What if…” scenario: imagining Heaven as God’s library, and within, every wonderful book and thought ever written. What if she finds herself there? What if, through entertaining conversation with God about love, language, the human experience, faith, and forgiveness Ms. Angelou would come to find the words to her last poem? Mr. Rhoze would like us to know Ms. Angelou more intimately, her emotional range and drive for self-expression. He is especially proud that his former wife, the award-winning actress Jacqueline Williams, will play the lead. Mr. Rhoze hopes audiences will leave with their eyes opened to yet another possibility – that life’s end might be “a kind of homecoming.”

Mr. Rhoze was very familiar with Ms. Angelou’s written works, but to inform himself about her conversationally, he watched countless interview segments on YouTube. “She was big on laughter. People didn’t know that about her. Maya would say, ‘Be a rainbow in someone’s cloud,’” Mr. Rhoze says.

“Maya’s Last Poem” runs August 8-23 at Fleetwood-Jourdain Theater at the Noyes Cultural Center, 927 Noyes St.