Westcoast Troupe gets ‘Joyful!’ with new Sarasota holiday show

Jay Handelman
Sarasota Herald-Tribune
Clockwise from left, Michael Mendez, Canela Vasquez, Marta McKinnon, Raleigh Mosely II and Katherine Taylor are featured in “Joyful! Joyful!” at Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe.

Over the last decade, Nate Jacobs has established two hit holiday shows for his Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe. But for this year, he felt the need for something different as audiences gradually return to gathering in theaters.

So he decided to put a hold on his version of “Black Nativity” and “Motown Christmas,” the two shows that have been presented in alternating years, and found new ways to celebrate the season to create “Joyful! Joyful!”

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“We were going to do ‘Black Nativity’ this year, but after this crazy year that we came out of, and the way it impacted me personally, I felt like I wanted to do something fresh to get everybody out of the funk of a world pandemic,” Jacobs said.

He worked with choreographer Donald Frison to develop the new show, which he says “has its own personality. We were very strategic about staying away from music that is in ‘Black Nativity’ or ‘Motown Christmas.’”

There may be a few songs that overlap, such as “The Little Drummer Boy,” but they have a different style and sound to them.

“Joyful! Joyful!” brings an “R&B, soulful, Afro-centric jazz edge to it,” he said. “The flavor is really different” from the previous shows.

Nate Jacobs is founder and artistic director of the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe.

It’s primarily a concert that features some longtime members of the Westcoast troupe, including Leon Pitts II, Michael Mendez and Raleigh Mosely II, along with newcomers to the theater as well as students who have been building their skills through the theater’s Stage of Discovery training program.

Jacobs said he hopes the annual holiday shows “will be a place where we can introduce new faces and new talent. I want to use these pieces to spotlight these people. Let’s give the younger teenage talent we discover in summer camp and give them a stipend and a showcase.”

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Surviving an unusual season

The pandemic forced shows to shut down just two months after Westcoast opened its newly expanded theater building in January 2020 with the musical “Caroline, or Change.” The theater was able to have an abbreviated run of “Your Arms Too Short to Box with God.”

To keep artists working and patrons entertained, Jacobs brought shows to the parking lot with two concert programs, and then the company filmed, without an audience, a production of Dominique Morisseau’s “Pipeline,” which was available for outdoor screenings and home streaming in place of the originally planned live version.

Masked audiences came out on both chilly and warm nights for the varied productions. In October, the company returned to indoor performances with its season-opening production of “Eubie!”

“I just feel incredibly grateful to walk into this beautiful edifice of a theater and think about how much we struggled to get here,” Jacobs said. “And now we get to come back to this beautiful building. There is nothing that outweighs gratitude, and that’s what inspired me to write ‘Joyful! Joyful!’ Because that’s how I feel now that we’re back.”

‘Joyful! Joyful!’

Created and directed by Nate Jacobs, choreography by Donald Frison. Runs Dec. 1-30, Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, 1012 N. Orange Ave., Sarasota. 941-366-1505; westcoastblacktheatre.org

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