BACKSTAGE PASS: Sarasota community presents the city's cultural transformation



Before the 1950s, the landscape of Sarasota was different. Mirroring many other parts of the country, there were separate beaches, separate hospitals and separate schools to segregate races. Three landmark Supreme Court cases changed that: the Dred Scott decision, Plessy v. Ferguson and Brown v. The Board of Education.

The aim of an upcoming collaborative production called “We Are Sarasota” is to share Sarasota’s transformation, through the help of the legal system, from a segregated community to the culturally diverse city it is today. The multimedia collaboration hopes to reach the younger generation and promote diversity even further. The performance will take place Tuesday, Oct. 2, at the Sarasota Opera House.

Booker High School students will act out narratives; lawyers and judges will tell the legal narrative; and WBTT members will enhance the stories with powerful music reflecting black heritage. And, a few other community members from various organizations will help spread the message.

Local lawyer Charlie Ann Syprett and Judge Charles Williams conceived the idea with help of the Sarasota County Bar Association’s (SCBA) Diversity Committee; soon after, Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe and Booker High School jumped on board. The main goal of the program is to educate the younger generation about how change is made through the legal system.

It’s fitting that both Syprett and Williams are on the SCBA Diversity Committee. Syprett met Williams at the public defenders office in the ’80s; she was the only woman and he was the only black man at the office.
Their mission is not only to educate, but to ensure the bar association’s make up reflects the community.

The first black president-elect of the Florida Bar, Gene Pettis, was sworn in in July. Pettis will attend the Oct. 2 performance of “We Are Sarasota.” Syprett said the Florida Bar has been supportive of the Diversity Committee.

“We’re considered the gold standard of the diversity committees across the state … we received a coveted grant from the Florida Bar to do this program,” Syprett said.

But, it’s not just a “program.” As Syprett describes the end of the production, she begins to tear up. It’s moving, and it suggests why everyone was so quick to get involved.

There’s been a lot of community support, including WBTT, which will “blow the roof off of the Opera House,” Syprett says.

When Nate Jacobs began WBTT in 1999, he didn’t know the history of Sarasota.

“The black community was astounded with how involved I was downtown,” he says. WBTT is the first and only black theater company in Sarasota/Manatee.

Assistant to the artistic director Will Little has helped organize the show and select the music that WBTT will perform.

“We’re bringing our voice and our struggles into the piece to help show how the law has changed over the years to help bring equality to everyone, not just African-Americans, but all individuals,” he says.

Christine Jennings, friend of Syprett’s and WBTT CEO, suggests that the city has come a long way, but that there’s plenty of room to grow.

“This town wants diversity — they want more of it, they’re hungry for it,” Jennings says.

Booker students of all colors, races and backgrounds, a reflection of present-day Sarasota, are rehearsing to the story of educational evangelist Emma E. Booker.

Booker was at the forefront of Sarasota’s civil-rights movement. In 1923, when the school superintendent told Booker, “An eighth-grade education is enough for any Negro,” she persevered. Booker began the Sarasota Grammar School, which eventually fought for a high school, Booker High School. It graduated its first class of four students in 1935.

Scott Keys, acting teacher at Booker High School, pulled historical documents and narratives to create the Booker portion of the script.

“For them to hear about it, that a school like this, a department like this wouldn’t have been considered — it’s hard for them to wrap their heads around,” says Keys.

Keys describes one student’s epiphany during a beach scene in which white students are sunbathing and black students are forbidden from stepping foot on the beach: “Wait, are you saying black people weren’t allowed to go to the beach?” the student asked. It was a remarkable moment for Keys as an educator.

‘We Are Sarasota’
When: 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 2
Where: Sarasota Opera House, 61 N. Pineapple Ave. 
Tickets: $50 
For more info: Visit 

By the Numbers:
10 WBTT members
30 Booker students
5 judges on stage
5 lawyers
454 students being bused in to watch the performance
9 representatives from community organizations


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