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Twenty-five years ago in Sarasota, Nate Jacobs had a life-altering “ah-ha” moment when he realized that he was the only Black performing artist on Sarasota local stages. Even more astonishing to him was the absence of Blacks in the audiences.
“Why is this and what can I do to change it,” he thought.
Fast forward a quarter of a century, and Jacob’s “ah-ha” moment spawned into the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe- one of the top African-American nonprofit theatres in the country. Jacobs solicited help from local philanthropists and inspired them to support providing a space for Black artists to create and perform, while also helping to educate and entertain the public about Black culture. Jacobs has used his extensive experience as actor, singer, director, and playwright to produce musicals, comedies, and thought-provoking dramas, as well as new works from emerging playwrights. He credits Christine Jennings for helping him to created the first board (she was an Executive Director). Jennings came onboard in 2010. Julie Leach is now executive director after serving as a board member and is also a major philanthropist.
Over the years, WBTT rented space on Orange Avenue in downtown, Sarasota. As luck has it, the building went into foreclosure in 2015 and with the help from a local bank (BB & T) and philanthropic donations, the nonprofit theatre group eventually bought the building four years ago, along with a second one on the same property which is used for administrative offices.
WBTT is truly one of the most outstanding venues in Sarasota, with performances during the season that motivate the audiences to buy season tickets. Professional artists, many of whom go on to lucrative careers, perform The Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe in Sarasota has performed a variety of shows, including sizzling musical productions, dramatic live shows, young artist showcases, and community forums. WBTT’s first production in 2000 was the musical revue “Blackbird: Josephine Baker.” The show was a critical and commercial success, and it helped to establish WBTT as a major force in the Sarasota arts scene. Some of the past seasons’ shows include “Into the Heights,” “A Motown Christmas,” “The Mountaintop,” “Lady Day at Emerson’s,” “Soul Man,” “Real Life,” “Fairytale Lane,” and “Tribute to Aretha Franklin.” Broadway musicals include: “Dreamgirls,” “The Wiz,” and “Hairspray.” WBTT has also produced a number of world premieres, including “The Color Purple.”
WBTT is more than just a theatre company. It is also a community center and a place where people of all backgrounds can come together to celebrate African-American culture. WBTT offers a variety of educational programs, including workshops, master classes, and summer camps for students (Stage of Discovery is the summer musical theatre intensive program, with a limited number of students ages 13-18 who are coached in acting, singing, dancing, and improvisation by creative professionals. They also gain behind-the-scenes experience with set and costume design. The program culminates in a public performance of an exciting musical.)
“The skills and training the kids learn in Stage of Discovery include leadership, self-esteem building and the presentation confidence they gain carry them over into any profession they pursue, ” says Jacobs. The results of their efforts prove that audiences are literally BLOWN AWAY by the performance of the kids in mid July each year.
WBTT has received numerous awards for its work, including the Sarasota Herald-Tribune’s “Best of the Best” award for “Best Theatre Company” and the Florida Association of Theatre Educators’ “Outstanding Professional Theatre Company” award.
The theater also announced its upcoming 2023-2024 season, which includes “Once on this Island,” “Joyful! Joyful!” and “Marvin Gaye: Prince of Soul.” Tony Award-winning musical, “Once on this Island” opens the season on October 11-November 19, 2023. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. matinees Saturdays-Sundays; all performances take place in WBTT’s Donelly Theatre (1012 N. Orange Ave., Sarasota).
Based on the novel “My Love, My Love” by Rosa Guy, this sweeping production (Once on the Island) showcases Afro-Caribbean rhythms and instruments, with music and lyrics by the Tony Award-winning musical team behind “Ragtime” (lyrics and book by Lynn Ahrens, music by Stephen Flaherty). Tickets are $40- $50/adults, $20/students or active military (prices include ticket fees). Visit westcoastblacktheatre.org.
This season’s big Gala fundraising performance, Groovin’ on the Soul Train 2 will occur at Circus Arts Conservatory, Saturday, November 11 from 6pm – 9:30. Created by Don Cornelius in 1970, “Soul Train” was the first American music television show to prominently feature Black musical acts and dancers. The hour-long show was originally broadcast in Chicago, Monday through Friday, and replicated a dance-club environment that featured both professional and amateur dancers. After its national syndication, the show’s appeal grew to other ethnicities, introducing many African-American artists to a larger audience. Soul and funk luminaries such as Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson, TLC, and many other legendary performers were featured on the show, immensely helping their popularity to grow.
During the WBTT “Groovin’ event, longtime dedicated supporter and board member Cheryl Anderson will be recognized as WBTT’s Heart & Soul Philanthropy honoree. Dinner will be catered by Michael’s On East. The fundraising portion of the evening will feature a matching opportunity: Charles & Margery Barancik Foundation recently awarded a grant of $150,000 to help WBTT mentor and train entry-level personnel critical to continuing the growth and success of the organization; of that amount, $50,000 has been put forth as a challenge match that WBTT will use to inspire fundraising on behalf of this effort during the gala.
“Last year’s event was a huge hit – our guests loved the music and opportunity to dress on theme,” said WBTT Executive Director Julie Leach. “We invite community members to come and enjoy an exuberant evening while supporting the mission of WBTT.” The live band will be led by Etienne “EJ” Porter, music director and drums; Alan “Duke” Robinson II, main keys; Zacchur Porter, auxiliary keys; Brad Foutch, guitar; and Matthew McKinnon, bass. Buy tickets here to Groovin’ 24th Gala.
Today, West Coast Black Theatre continues to draw a multi-ethnic audience mix and a medley of top notch professional Black talent on the stage – all performances telling the stories of Black people and promoting diversity and inclusion in the arts. WBTT has also established itself as one of the most influential, cultural institutions in Sarasota and also also a vital part of the economic and social fabric here.
“A vital part of the Sarasota arts scene, WBTT plays an important role in the community. “It is a place where black artists can thrive and where people of all backgrounds can come together to experience the rich culture of African Americans, ” Jacobs concludes.
IF YOU GO:
Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe Of Florida
1012 N. Orange Ave.
Sarasota, FL 34236 Phone: 941-366-1505#106
~Andrea Mastrocinque- Martone