Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe moving toward normal for new season

Jay Handelman
Sarasota Herald-Tribune
From left Ariel Blue, Syreeta S. Banks and JoAnna Ford in a scene from the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe’s 2017 production of “Broadway in Black,” which will be brought back in the new season.

The Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe’s 2021-22 season may have a familiar ring to it. Three of the four main productions were originally planned for this year before the coronavirus pandemic upended the schedule.

Like other theater companies, WBTT has experimented in the last year with alternate forms of entertainment, including the outdoor soul music revue “Light Up the Night” in its own parking lot, and the video recording of Dominique Morisseau’s drama “Pipeline,” which is available for home streaming through May 23.

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A second revue, “Sistas in the Name of Love,” featuring hits by such legendary female stars as Aretha Franklin, The Supremes, Gladys Knight and the Pointer Sisters, will be presented in the theater’s parking lot Saturday through June 6.

By the fall, founder and Artistic Director Nate Jacobs and Executive Director Julie Leach expect to once again produce shows in their brand new theater building, which was able to host just two productions before the pandemic outbreak.

Leach said seating capacity will be limited for safety at least at the start of the season when the company opens the musical revue “Eubie,” built around the songs of composer Eubie Blake. It opens Oct. 6.

Julie Leach, executive director of the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, and Nate Jacobs, founder and artistic director.

As the season progresses, it is possible that more seats will be sold until WBTT reaches physical capacity. “We plan to keep some space between seats at least at the start,” Leach said.

Beyond “Eubie,” the season will include a new holiday celebration “Joyful! Joyful!” (Dec. 1-30); the delayed world premiere of “Ruby” (Jan. 12-Feb. 24), a musical created by Jacobs and his brother Michael; and a reprise of “Broadway in Black” (March 9-April 24), a celebration of Black musicals and performers who managed to find success on the “Great White Way.” 

There also will be two world premieres of one-act shows being created through the company’s New Playwrights Series. Tarra Conner jones, who has performed in numerous shows at WBTT including “Black Nativity” and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” has created the one-person show “From Birmingham to Broadway,” about Tony Award-winning actress Nell Carter, who starred on TV in “Gimme a Break.” Nate and Michael Jacobs also are developing a new play about Muhammed Ali called “Float Like a Butterfly” that is expected to star Earley Dean, one of the founding members of the troupe. The two shows will run together May 4-29.

Considering the events of the last year, with the pandemic and the killing of George Floyd and others that prompted calls for police reform and equity in the national theater scene, Jacobs said he has built the new season on the theme “And Still We Rise,” inspired by a Maya Angelou poem.

Jacobs said the theme puts a focus on the idea that despite the continued problem of racism and injustice in the nation “we are still able to rise above it all and accomplish great feats. These shows are about being extremely entertaining but also about equality.”

“Ruby,” for example, tells the true story of the 1952 murder of a white doctor in Florida by a Black woman, a crime that essentially guaranteed her conviction, Jacobs said. Famed writer Zora Neale Hurston took interest in the case and wrote about it for a newspaper. The musical taps into the back story of secrets that shocked the small community and provides a different perspective on the crime committed.

“Ruby is about injustice in the 1950s,” Jacobs said. “‘Broadway in Black’ tells the history of equality on Broadway when they finally decided that people of color could be on that American platform. It’s that history of us finding our way into that whole theater industry.”

Tarra Conner jones, a popular performer at the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, will return next season in “From Birmingham to Broadway,” one-woman show she is creating about Tony-winning actress Nell Carter.

He describes “Joyful! Joyful!” “as something a little different and more celebratory” than the theater has previously presented in the holiday season. It will offer an eclectic mix of new music along with traditional holiday songs in new arrangements – such as a gospel version of Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” and a version of “Carol of the Bells” inspired by the O’Jays.

Leach said the theater has been working with Actors’ Equity Association to provide safe conditions for rehearsals for cast members and ensuring safety for audience members. The union has “issued some new rules that make it easier about being in the theater with an audience wearing masks,” she said.

Because it will be testing audience response to returning to the theater after a year, WBTT will not sell its traditional subscription packages. All tickets will be sold individually beginning in late summer. For more information, call 941-366-1505 or visit westcoastblacktheatre.org.

Jay Handelman, arts editor and theater critic, has been an editor and writer at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune since 1984. Read more of his arts and entertainment stories. And please support local journalism by subscribing to the Herald-Tribune.