Sunday, May 06, 2018

We Welcome Live Over There: 'A Home on the Lake' Provides an Insightful Evanston, and Racial, History Lesson -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

A Home on the Lake
a world premiere play by Stephen Fedo and Tim Rhoze
directed by Tim Rhoze
Piven Theatre, Evanston
in collaboration with Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre
Thru June 3

Growing up on the north end of Skokie--where I still reside, in a different home--the city of Evanston was, in part, just a couple blocks away.

Situated between Skokie and Lake Michigan, Evanston--home to the prestigious Northwestern University--always felt like a larger, hipper and, in my youth, far more diverse suburb.

Whereas the populace of Skokie, circa 1980 or so, was predominantly white and Jewish, Evanston was known--as opposed not only to Skokie but most nearby suburbs of Chicago--for its heavy mix of black and white. (Skokie has now become quite multi-culturally diverse, albeit with seemingly relatively few African-Americans.)

I won't say I was raised to be completely colorblind, but I was never taught to hate or feel superior, and as a sports fan couldn't help but admire the success of Evanston High School, which--with a trio of future college stars--would beat my alma mater, Niles North, in a memorable sectional basketball game.

I knew there were areas of Evanston that were heavily black, but quite regularly rode through one of them--east along Emerson Ave. to the downtown district--and never gave much thought to the town's literal racial divisions or why they existed.

As I'll turn 50 in a few months, I've had many years to better understand the--often quite ugly--ways of the world, including the extremely harmful impact of "redlining."

Per my understanding, largely in the 1930s-1950s, many U.S. banks--at the behest of the Federal Housing Administration--systematically denied mortgages to black families seeking to buy or build homes in white neighborhoods.

Largely keeping the races segregated, relegating African-Americans to inferior schools and hence, employment opportunities, and denying them the kind of generational wealth many white families were able multiply thanks to real estate holdings, redlining--essentially discriminatory housing practices exacerbated by bigoted white folks--has impacted the racial divide very much still felt today.

Lorraine Hansberry's brilliant 1959 play, A Raisin in the Sun, broached this topic quite forcefully, and 50+ years later, Bruce Norris' Pulitzer Prize-winning Clybourne Park also reflected on it as a sequel of sorts. Both are Chicago-based.

I won't say A Home on the Lake--written by Fleetwood-Jourdain artistic director Tim Rhoze and Piven Theatre Workshop literary manager Stephen Fedo--is quite on par with those two plays, and it focuses on housing discrimination that preceded the era of redlining, but it adds powerful insights, even (for me) a bit more locally.

Let me clearly state that A Home on the Lake--in a world premiere collaborative production between Fleetwood-Jourdain and Piven, both resident companies within Evanston's Noyes Cultural Arts Center--is dramatically strong enough to be staged, seen and appreciated anywhere.

Like A Raisin in the Sun and Clybourne Park, it's themes are universal enough that one needn't know the exact geography it references.

But for residents of Evanston, and those who grew up nearby, it is an especially potent piece of theater, not just because it mentions local establishments like Hecky's BBQ.

Although all the characters in A Home on the Lake are fictional, and it is as much a play about families as it is about Evanston history and racial divides, Fedo and Rhoze clearly did their research, and openly give credit to oral histories collected by Nina Kavin and Dear Evanston.

The action in the play takes place in both the early-1920s and the modern day, intermingled, with the same actors playing roles in both eras.

Yet while this might sound wrought for confusion, it's to the great credit of the script, the performances and director Rhoze that the narrative runs rather seamlessly and coherently.

Unfortunately, the actors are not depicted in the few photos of the show I could find online, but Sean Blake and Christopher M. Walsh play black and white businessmen, respectively, who strike a deal to build new home communities in Evanston for thousands of African-Americans relocating from the American south during the Great Migration.

At least per what the play purports--and it seems rather legitimate--Evanston, more than other suburbs, openly welcomed blacks because it needed cheap labor for the rapid expanding university town.

But--even well before the rise of redlining--African-Americans were not able to obtain mortgages for homes on or near the lake, or close to Evanston's central business district, east of Green Bay Road.

Blake's character of Leland Fowler realizes this, and while not exactly accepting of it--particularly when his own family's dream of "a home on the lake" is put in jeopardy--he seeks to build a "negro colony" between west of Green Bay Rd. to the North Shore Channel, a.k.a. the "stinky" sanitation canal, where the white folks don't want to live. Walsh's Case Milburn provides Fowler with vital financial backing, but with some unkind strings attached.

Fowler's wife Isabelle (a terrific Nicholia Q. Aguirre) is friends with Milburn's wife Florence (the likewise superb Abigail Boucher), and in the modern day their great-granddaughters (played by the same actresses) are a married couple. 

In both eras, Jelani Pitcher and Rachel Shapiro, are teenage companions--in the 1920s as interracial friends, in 2018 as a brother & sister who create music together--and both add to the story. 

As noted above, A Home on the Lake is just as much a play about family as it is about housing, race and Evanston. Yet while this makes it quite compelling, sometimes all the elements seem to be a bit much, and certain characters go missing for awhile.

I purposely won't divulge much about the modern-day dilemma faced by Aguirre's and Boucher's married characters of Cynthia and Florence, but something about a financial aspect puzzled me.

So while much work, and presumably refining, has made A Home on the Lake a truly fantastic world premiere--i.e. creating a multifaceted, dual-era narrative this gripping and cogent is no small feat--there probably could be some more tightening of the various threads.

But this is one of the best plays I've seen in 2018--and should stay that way no matter what I see--one whose insights truly hit home.

No matter where you may live.

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