This triple threat trio in Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe's upcoming original musical are on the verge of big breaks.
Nate Jacobs has a sixth sense.
The founder and artistic director of Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe knows how to spot young artists he can mold into stars.
“My background is in discovering raw talent and developing them into polished and professional artists,” Jacobs says. “Success is not haphazard, success is planned. Some people say there’s only room at the top for a few, but there’s room at the top for as many as those willing to do what it takes.” WBTT’s latest show (which is Jacobs’ first of all original music), “Rockin’ Down Fairytale Lane,” features three young performers who have what it takes. All three got their start at the company, where Jacobs says they’re some of the most celebrated performers to step onstage — so he knows their futures are bright.
Derric Gobourne Jr.’s earliest memory of interacting with Jacobs was through the back of a car window.
He had just danced in a young artist showcase at the invitation of WBTT performer Alyssa White, and Jacobs remembered the middle schooler with the captivating stage presence from a Martin Luther King Jr. Day performance a few years earlier.
“(Afterward) I looked over my shoulder and saw his face pressed against the car window, watching my every step,” Jacobs says. “I asked if his mom could wind down the window and I looked at him and I said, ‘I see you and I will not forget you.’”
Jacobs kept his promise. In 2014, Gobourne was cast as a young Stevie Wonder in the WBTT show “Best of Stevie Wonder.” Four years later, he hasn’t stopped working for the company, and he’s used the skills he learned from Jacobs to pursue a career as a singer, songwriter and music producer at the same time.
Gobourne released his debut album, “Supremacy,” in June, and recently completed a summer tour around Florida. He credits WBTT for teaching him nearly everything he knows about the entertainment industry.
“It’s not just a theater company, it’s an institution,” Gobourne says. “Mr. Jacobs is building stars, which he’s proved time and time again with the Christopher Eisenbergs (who signed with Sony Music in 2016) and Teresa Stanleys (who performed in ‘The Color Purple’ on Broadway in 2007).”
The environment of WBTT is inimitable, he says. It’s a family of people who make one another better. But he hasn’t just honed a variety of dance styles from hip-hop to tap. Gobourne has developed a level of professionalism that he doesn’t see many other 19-year-olds maintaining.
One of the points Jacobs has ingrained in his proteges is the importance of maintaining a mature and clean image. Gobourne says this expands past everyday life and into the digital world.
“I’m adamant about what I post on social media because people are always watching,” he says. “It’s so easy to destroy your own brand.”
And his brand isn’t just as an artist. Jacobs is constantly reminding him to set an example for the kids looking up to him — evident by how often young locals seek advice from Gobourne.
THE CHILDHOOD DREAMER
Topaz Von Wood knew from a young age that she wanted to be a professional dancer, but she was convinced she was too tall. So, she started secretly drinking coffee with the hopes it would stunt her growth.
“I don’t think it did anything because I’m 5-feet, 7-inches,” she jokes before quickly returning to her no-nonsense demeanor. “But we’re intense. This is not a hobby, it’s not just for fun.”
Jacobs stood in awe of the ballerina he watched perform in 2016 at a show for scholarship recipients, unaware it was the daughter of an old friend.
Von Wood had just been accepted to the certificate program at The Ailey School, the official school of the prestigious Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater company in New York City, but her family was having trouble affording it.
Jacobs was impressed with the dancer and wanted to help. He gave Von Wood a spot in his summer show, “Mahalia: How I Got Over,” and introduced her to the company board members who would later help finance her dance education. Now, after three summers performing with WBTT, she’s received a musical theater education as well.
“I’m strictly a dancer,” she says. “I don’t sing and I don’t act, so when I come here, I kind of sing — I whisper — and I have to be a character. That pushes me so far out of my comfort zone that when I go back to my school, I’m ready for anything.”
Von Wood trained at Sarasota Cuban Ballet School growing up, where she says the environment was more competitive than WBTT. But it isn’t all fun and games at WBTT, either.
“He (Jacobs) doesn’t baby us,” she says. “Whether you’re 10 or 30, you better come and be ready. So that got us really ready for the professional world.”
She appreciates this serious approach to her work because she has a short window of time in which she can perform. Her body will give out eventually, Von Wood says, which is why dancers have to grow up quickly.
Another lesson she’s learned from Jacobs is the importance of carrying herself well and to maintain a good relationship with those supporting her. Having sponsors means she’s held to a higher standard, Von Wood says.
“We have their names on our backs, and we represent Mr. Jacobs,” she says. “When other 20-year-olds can go party and curse, we have to be a good representation of what he’s built.”
She is grateful for the backers she has at WBTT because sponsors can be particularly hard to come by for biracial women like herself, she says. When she was a teenager, a man once told Von Wood he wouldn’t have sponsored her if she had a boyfriend because the last time he gave money to an African-American artist, she got pregnant.
However, surrounded by positivity at WBTT, she’s grown a tough skin in the face of prejudice.
“They (industry professionals) don’t know how to handle themselves when they see a 20-year-old black woman who’s ready for you to watch her,” she says. “But this is what we were made for. We’re going to give you something to look at.”
THE LATE BLOOMER
Joshua Thompson didn’t start his dance career until his sophomore year of high school — much later than most dancers.
Now, he studies dance at the esteemed American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York City. He credits WBTT for much of his success.
It all started when Thompson began dancing with Jacobs’ protege Chris Eisenberg, who told the budding performer about WBTT. Thompson, then 15, was intrigued, but asked Eisenberg to reach out to Jacobs for him.
“I went over to him and said, ‘Why does Christopher have to talk for you?’” Jacobs recalls with a laugh.
Thompson was then invited to pop into rehearsals for the company’s 2014 production of “Harry & Lena,” for which he assumed he was being cast. However, the day after Jacobs told Thompson he had to prove his talent to be in the show, he came back and put in the extra effort, working past the end of rehearsals to prove his passion. He got the part and has been dancing in WBTT shows ever since.
“Nate rubs off on you in a really positive way,” Thompson says. “I start sounding like him talking to my peers at school and they tell me I’m helpful.”
His years at WBTT prepared him to attend AMDA, he says, because he gained a sense of confidence that sometimes baffles his teachers. He’s also learned not to take anything personally, to make as many connections as possible and to stay in the moment, even when he’s beyond exhausted.
“People tell me I’m going to last long because I love learning and I haven’t gotten to the point where I’m going through the motions or faking it,” Thompson says. “I make sure I light up like a firecracker.”
Perhaps his biggest “aha!” moment was backstage at a dress rehearsal during which Jacobs told Thompson he needed to cut his hair for a show. He was visibly displeased by the direction, which made Jacobs angry. Thompson says his mentor took him outside for a 15-minute lecture about listening to what directors say. He’s never disobeyed a direction since.
His WBTT journey has required a great deal of sacrifice just like his two peers, but opting for more time training and less time hanging out with friends is necessary to get where he wants to be.
“I know I’m not great yet,” he says. “But I’m working to get there.”