Classic soul and classic Christmas converge at the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe.
Nate Jacobs was looking for something special. It was summer 2014, and he was looking ahead to the winter artistic season. His theater company, the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, would be celebrating its 15th anniversary season that year. And when it came time to schedule a holiday-themed offering, Jacobs unfurled a production of “Black Nativity,” a gospel-flavored rendition of the Nativity story. Knowing that Christmastime theater quickly becomes community tradition, Jacobs wanted to offer another Christmas production to give in tandem with “Black Nativity” every other year — something more secular and completely different in style. So Jacobs dived into the music that had given WBTT its theatrical reputation: the Motown sound.
“A Motown Christmas,” which finishes its sold-out run Dec. 31 with a show and New Year’s Eve party, is Jacobs’ newest Christmas card to the community.
Written, directed by and starring Jacobs, the show is a celebratory revue that transports audiences to the heyday of Berry Gordy’s Motown Records with performances of songs by legendary artists, such as Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, The Supremes, The Four Tops, The Jackson 5, The Temptations and Marvin Gaye. But the real standing ovation is Jacobs and his cast’s ability to take the hall of fame of R&B and have that sound melt effortlessly into the tinsel tones of traditional holiday favorites.
“I worked really hard to make this production as different from ‘Black Nativity’ as possible,” says Jacobs. “With these kinds of shows, I start a year in advance in pulling out the music. There was a lot of traditional gospel and carols that I stayed away from for this show.”
Starting with the whole company performing Donny Hathaway’s Christmas standard “This Christmas,” the first act is then dominated by an 11-song set list of Motown standards to immerse the audience into the flavor and history of the record studio’s influential artists. But after that introduction, Jacobs and his cast start blending the Motown sound with the spirit of the season with renditions of Motown original Christmas songs, modern Yuletide standards, and even two songs written by Jacobs himself. The result is a show that plumbs the depths of what counts as the season’s musical spirit.
“Mr. Jacobs has a very different process from most directors,” says Leon S. Pitts II, actor in “A Motown Christmas” and a founding WBTT member. “I was expecting the traditional Christmas songs, but we got great material that sings to people’s hearts. He’s going to push it and work that scene and that song until it matches the spirit of the show he has in mind.”
Jacobs says that spirit is to capture both the joy and melancholy of the season. He told his nine-member ensemble that the holiday season is one of the most emotional months of the year. For some, it reminds them of home and happiness, but for others in the audience, the show could be a more somber reminder.
“This show is less of a story and more of a journey,” says MaRah Williams, first-time WBTT performer. “I think how the songs are grouped makes it a seamless journey. And with each note we hit, we want people to feel something.”
The cast has been honing that emotional connection since rehearsals began, Oct. 27. It wasn’t even Halloween, and Jacobs and WBTT were already obsessed with Christmas. During the course of sold-out shows since opening Dec. 2, Jacobs and his ensemble have noticed the impact all those songs, soul, live music and stage slides have had on the audience.
“They say that the eyes are the windows to the soul,” says Pitts. “I’ve been performing here for years, and you can see when what you’re doing onstage is touching the people. It’s not about any of the performers when we step into the theater. You have a responsibility to the audience to understand what they’re going through.”
Jacobs says that like Motown visionary Berry Gordy, the real goal is to rise above the material and stay with audiences long after the show is over.
“We speak to a diverse audience here in Sarasota, just like Motown did,” he says. “When I put together an original show, I want it to be accepted and embraced by all cultures. Whether they’re Christian or not, everyone who comes to this show can sit down in one of those seats and feel like we thought about them. They walk out with their soul and spirit rejuvenated.”