Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe is just wild about ‘Eubie!’
The last time the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe produced the musical revue “Eubie!,” it launched the company’s first full season in 2002.
Nineteen years later, the celebration of music by groundbreaking composer Eubie Blake helps the company reopen after an 18-month break from live, indoor performances caused by the coronavirus pandemic, and cast members are happy to be together again.
“It’s so amazing being around so many talented people in this cast. It’s great to be back in the groove,” said Brian Boyd, one of a dozen cast members in the show that opens Saturday night after a couple of preview performances. “It’s good to be back on the stage and when we first perform in front of people, I’m sure I’ll get all the feels. We’re back.”
He is joined by returning artists Syreeta Banks, Jai Shanae and his girlfriend, whose stage name is Brentney J, along with a number of performers who are new to the Westcoast troupe.
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Jim Weaver, who recently joined the staff as education director and artistic associate, is staging the show, which explores the career of the composer and ragtime pianist who was known as the “Father of Black Broadway.”
With lyrics by Noble Sissle, Blake composed the score to “Shuffle Along,” the first all-Black produced, written and cast show on Broadway. It opened in 1921, and was soon followed by such shows as “Elsie,” “The Chocolate Dandies” and “Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds.” There were two revivals of “Shuffle Along” over the years before director and playwright George Wolfe created “Shuffle Along, or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed,” which explored the challenges the creators had in opening the show and its impact on Broadway and race relations.
Blake, who was born in Baltimore in 1887 and lived to be 96, is most famous for the hit “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” which he wrote for “Shuffle Along.” The show “Eubie” features about two dozen more songs including “Charleston Rag,” “My Handy Man Ain’t Handy No More,” “Dixie Moon,” “Memories of You” and “You Got to Git the Gittin’ While the Gittin’s Good.”
"With all of the challenges of the past 18 months, we couldn’t think of a better way to open the season than with this show, which audiences raved about when we performed it back in 2002,” said Nate Jacobs, the company’s founder and artistic director. He said Blake’s work on “Shuffle Along” “opened the doors for countless artists of color on the ‘Great White Way.’”
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“Eubie!” which features musical direction by Brennan Stylez, is only the third show to be presented in front of live audiences in the company’s Donnelly Theatre, which opened in January 2020 with “Caroline, or Change,” followed by an abbreviated run of “Your Arms Too Short to Box with God.”
Weaver, who left a job teaching theater arts at Kent State University to take on his new position at WBTT, said even though the actors and crew are “living in a bubble” for safety, “It has been great being around people. Being in a rehearsal process after quite a while is letting us get the muscles back in shape and the juices flowing again.”
The music may be new to some performers and younger audience members unfamiliar with Blake’s career. But Boyd said he studied the composer’s songs in a history of music class at Florida A&M University.
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“Every week they would play some of the big band leaders or major composers and Eubie Blake came through and his collaboration with Noble Sissle and ‘Shuffle Along.’ So I knew the impact he had on music was immense, but I didn’t know the songs so much,” he said.
Stylez, who is now the assistant music director for the theater, said he has performed songs by Blake in various shows and concerts but learned a lot about the composer while preparing for the production.
“I did a bit of research and realized he was a living legend,” Stylez said. “He lived a long time and all the incredible music he created is inspiring to me.”
Rather than a large band, Stylez is using just keyboards, acoustic bass, and drums. “I wanted to keep this very simplistic to get the sound of the clubs in the 1920s. They didn’t have horn sections. The big band sound hadn’t come into play yet. I’m keeping the authenticity of the music and the integrity of the jazz. I wanted people to embrace what his music was like.”
Weaver, who has directed numerous shows at WBTT from “Fences” and “Purlie” to “Raisin” and “In the Heights,” said the safety protocols for COVID-19 have caused him to adjust the way he normally works in staging a show.
“It does cause me to have to rethink how to get something across effectively but still have it be as effective as possible. It does have me rethinking the way I might block something, the intimacy of a moment. But in some ways, we’re lucky because everyone has been tested and everyone is conscious about staying healthy.”
The original Broadway production of “Eubie!” which was conceived by director Julianne Boyd, featured the dance talents of Gregory Hines and Maurice Hines. Weaver said he is emphasizing the singing in his production.
“I’m more focused on singing and acting. Movement is second,” he said. “But there is a lot of movement, as Brian will testify to.”
At Weaver’s statement, Brian Boyd let out a breath suggesting exhaustion. He said rehearsals have been a major change for the performers, particularly because they are required to wear masks.
“Breathing is a thing, you know,” he said with a laugh. “WBTT is taking the right precautions to make sure everyone is safe, tested, sitting distanced while rehearsing. But it’s still theater. We’re still doing the work.”
Conceived by Julianne Boyd. Music by Eubie Blake. Directed and choreographed by Jim Weaver. Runs Wednesday through Nov. 21, Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, 1012 N. Orange Ave., Sarasota. Tickets are $47, $20 for students or active military members. 941-366-1505; westcoastblacktheatre.org
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