Bishop Henry Porter replays a voicemail he saved from March. The bishop and founder of the Westcoast School for Human Development wears a proud smile as Nate Jacobs’ voice sounds aloud:
“I wanted you to be the first to know that we own the property we’re on,” the message says. It’s big news that the group now has its own theater.
Porter remembers Jacobs long before Jacobs was even a performer. And, if it weren’t for Porter’s mentorship, there would not be a Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe (WBTT).
Just as Porter did for him, Jacobs lights the way for the troupe members he mentors, and they proceed to illuminate the lives of the people they touch.
It only takes a spark
When Sarasota-born Porter was in seventh grade, he asked to help grade teacher Janie Poe’s papers. She became his homeroom teacher and took extra time to help him.
Back then, Porter wanted to go to France, become a mathematician and return to America to become the only black professor with a French accent. But as he matured, he decided he wanted to attend Yale and become a mathematics professor.
In response, Poe took him to First National Bank after hours and told the then-secretary of the Selby Foundation, Richard Jackson, that Porter was a fine Christian boy who needed a little money for school. Porter became one of the first Selby Scholars.
“That opened the doors,” he says. “I’m in the loop.”
Porter keeps referring to the “loop.” He says some people want to do well but don’t know how. And if someone else has the ability to help that person, then they should bring him or her in the loop.
“That’s what we have to do to connect the community,” he says. “We can do more together than any one of us can do alone.”
Under this notion and as a service to the community, Porter founded the Westcoast School for Human Development. He had an organ, a front porch and put a listing in the paper.
Igniting a fire
Five dollars put Nate Jacobs in the loop. In 1979, Jacobs was in a prayer group Porter founded at Florida A&M University, in Tallahassee, where Porter had been a professor. Porter and Jacobs knew of each other, but Porter had never seen Jacobs perform. Jacobs, then 19, was hanging out with a group of peers who’d prodded him to give an impromptu performance — and Jacobs created the character Sarasota now knows as Aunt Rudele on the spot. The group was roaring with laughter when up walked Dr. Porter. Jacobs saw him as esteemed and became embarrassed of what Porter might think.
“He looked shocked,” Porter says before giving a gaped mouth demonstration and laughing. Following the performance, he gave Jacobs $5 to buy a notebook and pen and told him to write it down.
“I could see all of his raw potential,” Porter says. “Like a mountain of coal and all it needed was fire. With the proper fire, he could light the world.”
Porter enlisted Jacobs’ help as the art teacher at his Sarasota church’s K-12 school upon Jacobs’ graduation of Florida A & M University. Jacobs thought the move would be temporary. Jacobs settled into his job and created elaborate Christian-themed musicals for the children, who performed to a standing-room only audience.
One day, he and Porter began talking about Sarasota’s needs — diversified theater performances. A black theater troupe, Jacobs stated. It’s something Porter would never let him relinquish.
“He said, ‘You got a lot inside of you, but you will not step out, but you know what I’m going to do?’” Jacobs says in his Dr. Porter voice. “‘I’m going to kick you out there.’”
When Jacobs received two offers to fund his quest to become a New York-based performer, Porter encouraged him to turn it down. Sarasota was his stage, Porter reassured him. One day, Porter set up a meeting with an attorney and told Jacobs to make his theater happen. Jacobs says he might have become resentful at times, thinking staying in Sarasota would trump him having a successful performing career. But Jacobs has been successful without New York.
“I didn’t see an organization living inside of me that I had to birth into existence,” Jacobs says. “Now, it’s clear as day: I was a door for other people.”
Passing the flame
Earley Dean, the lead in WBTT’s upcoming performance of “Purlie,” says he was horrible as a child.
“Wait, don’t say horrible — let’s say ‘active,’” he says with a laugh.
Dean was 5 years old when he became a student at the Westcoast Center. The first production of Jacobs’ he was in, he played a blue bird and because of nerves, threw up on stage. But when Dean got over his nerves, Jacobs cast him as the lead — a tiger. From then on, Dean was always the lead; Jacobs saw his raw potential, and Dean fell in love with performing.
“You can’t take your eyes off him,” Jacobs says.
Dean grew up in a single-parent home and when he reached his full stage of teenage angst and rebellion, his mom dropped him on Jacobs’ doorstep to straighten him out with some male influence.
In turn, when a friend of Dean’s got in a troubling situation, Dean brought him to Jacobs’ home, sat him down and advised him. Dean sounded like a professional psychiatrist. His leadership was strong, and he was maturing.
Dean would return from Florida A&M University to perform in Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe. He performed with his sister, Jnana Cooper, a founding member.
Jacobs still works with Dean to hone the 30-year-old performer’s leadership and craft. Jacobs decided to give him the lead role in “Purlie,” as an opportunity.
“I can already see what this is doing for him,” Jacobs says of his mentee. “It’s his time.”
Aside from acting, Dean teaches theater in an after-school program at Ward Temple AME church — lighting the way for his own students.
“If it weren’t for Bishop Porter and Nate, I wouldn’t be working with children today,” he says. “I’d probably be on the streets somewhere, with no direction, doing whatever I could to get by.”
IF YOU GO
This musical follows traveling preacher, Purlie, who returns to his small hometown in Georgia to save the town’s church, Big Bethel. His family is owed inheritance from the plantation owner, money necessary to Purlie’s cause. The only way to get the sum is from the family member to whom the money was left. And that family member is deceased.
When: Opens Nov. 13 and runs through Dec. 15
Where: Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe Theater, 1646 10th Way
Cost: Tickets $28
Call: For more information, call 366-1505 or visit wbttroupe.org