Forest Park playwright/actor Kevin Bry has brought a forgotten chapter in Oak Park history to life. His play, The Ebony Streak, premiered at OPRF High School’s Little Theater on Nov. 6. It tells the poignant story of Lewis Pope who starred on the OPRF football team in 1937 when they were one of the top teams in the country. Pope was denied the opportunity to play in a national showcase game in Miami, Florida because he was Black.
The Ebony Streak takes place in an era when reporters could use a person’s race to bestow a nickname. Lewis was the only Black student on the team. He played in the offensive backfield and was one of the team’s fastest players. His dream of playing Division I football were within reach.
Pope was born and raised in Oak Park. His single mom, Lava Pope, worked as a domestic. They lived with her parents and Lew’s two siblings. Pope attended Whittier School and went on to OPRF where he was very popular with his fellow students.
Back then, the OPRF football team was a national powerhouse. Miami Central High School invited OPRF to play on Christmas Day in their new stadium, where the Orange Bowl was played. Florida law prohibited their scholastic teams from competing against teams that had a Black player. Would OPRF allow the team to play under these conditions, or decline the invitation?
Actors read letters that were sent to the high school and the local newspaper, calling on OPRF to forgo the game. The letters came from average Oak Parkers as well as Black luminaries like Dr. Percy Julian. OPRF even received a letter from the NAACP’s New York office urging the school not to play.
OPRF’s Principal McDaniel, though, was in favor of playing, and Football Coach Holmes told Pope he would not be traveling with his teammates to Miami. Pope was devastated but handled it graciously. He didn’t want his teammates to miss the game. His reward was to announce the score of the game at a school assembly via tickertape. It ended in a 6-6 tie.
At graduation, Pope received the biggest applause of any student. He went on to Lincoln University, a traditional Black college in Missouri. Pope was teased there for his proper way of speaking. He transferred to the University of Iowa, where he sat out a year before he could join the football team. Then fate intervened again — Pope was drafted into a segregated unit of the Army Air Force to fight in World War II.
After the war, Pope moved to Boston and started a family. He also started his own businesses, which included nightclubs and restaurants. In 1996, he was invited back to OPRF to accept the high school’s Tradition of Excellence Award for being an outstanding business leader. Pope died in 1998. Based on viewing an oral history video of that Pope taped during his return visit, Bry made him the play’s narrator.
Bry also conducted research at the Historical Society of Oak Park-River Forest, where he found the letters to the newspaper and the high school. He wrote the play in 2022 and 50% of the dialogue is what the characters actually said. He received financial support to stage the play through a partnership between the historical society and the OPRF Alumni Association.
The play featured nine performers, including Bry’s son, Robert Hunter Bry, playing the “Young Lewis.” Principal McDaniel was portrayed by Frank Lipo, executive director, of the historical society. After the conclusion of the 35-minute play, five actors took the stage for a panel discussion with the audience.
There are no immediate plans to re-stage The Ebony Streak but several audience members believe it should be performed for current OPRF students.
I’m sure Lewis Pope would approve.