Sarasota is home to a longtime theater troupe that features African American actors and the work of black playwrights.
On Monday, Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe kicks off its 20th anniversary season with a celebration at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall in Sarasota. The show will feature songs from WBTT’s most memorable musicals, including original compositions, Broadway tunes and Motown hits.
Nate Jacobs, the founder and artistic director of Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe came to Sarasota to teach art at a private school in the city. At the time, he was a recent graduate of Florida A & M University in Tallahassee with a plan to be in Sarasota for a short time and then make his way to Washington D.C., or New York City to pursue his fine arts career. Instead, Jacobs discovered a passion for theater through his young school students.
“These little kids talked all the time,” he said with a laugh. “So I decided to do some theater with them to help them express all this energy that they had. I started writing these little children's stories and putting original music to them and then we put on these shows. That school opened my eyes up to a gift that I really didn't know I had.”
These days, WBTT generates six productions every season, including original shows written by Nate Jacobs, an annual Motown Christmas show and plays by notable black playwrights like August Wilson.
This year, the company will debut a new musical by Jacobs, Ruby, which premiers in April.
“It's a true story that happened in Live Oak, Florida in 1952,” said Jacobs. "It’s about a black, prestigious woman and a very powerful white man. They end up having an affair. She ends up killing him, shooting him. It became a national story which the writer Zora Neale Hurston was sent to cover. The nation was really shaken by this story because what black woman would be that bold to shoot a powerful white man?”
Beginning in January, the musical, and the rest of the company’s upcoming regular season, will all be staged at the WBTT’s soon to be newly renovated theater, a milestone Jacobs admits he wasn't always confident would happen.
"Ten years down the road, I was ready to throw in the towel and move to New York City like everyone thought I might," he said. "But I knew that was not what I was supposed to do," he continued. "I was sitting there in my car one day by myself saying, how are you going to move forward? And while I was sitting there, the first thing that happened to me, Jerry Springer, came to mind," he said of the famous talk show host. "He has a home in Sarasota," Jacobs continued. "So I called him and about about a week later he sent a check for $10,000. That was my shot in the arm to move forward."
At the same time, Howard Millman, a former artistic director for Sarasota's Asolo Theatre joined the board of Westcoast and he convinced Jacobs to stop trying to run the company by himself and to hire prominent Sarasota businesswoman Christine Jennings as the theater company's first executive director. "And in probably four months, every bill was paid and we were on the up and up," said Jacobs.
Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe is now recognized as one of the country's most successful professional black theater companies. The troupe has a strong donor base and an average 94 percent attendance rate. In 2018, the arts organization passed its goal of raising $6.5 million for the theater renovation and is now closing in on $8 million for future building costs and an endowment fund.
"I'm getting calls from all over, saying you may not know this, but you're a buzz across the nation because we're trying to figure out how you are getting all this amazing support, especially in Sarasota which is a predominately white community," said Jacobs. "Black theater in America has major challenges like most theaters and nonprofit organizations," he continued. "But black theater has its own struggle. Very few of them have their own space to put on shows. Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe in the last I'd say seven years, bought their own properties and that is a day I thought I would never see."
Even with demographics, Jacobs says WBTT is seeking to expand and diversify its audience.
"We do have a very strong group of theater goers which are predominately white that come and support our theater as far as attendees but there has been over the last 10 years, many African American retirees that are moving to Sarasota and buying beautiful homes and all of them come in and subscribe to the theater, so that's one way we are diversifying," he said. "And we now have a bona fide education program where every summer we have young African American teenagers come in and learn about musical theater. Last year we had hundreds of parents and family members come out to support that. So I'm really seeing the Sarasota community becoming diversified through the arts and that is just precious to me."
Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe's 20th Anniversary Celebration is Monday at 7:30 pm at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Center in Sarasota.