Teresa Stanley is sitting in the lobby at the new Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe building, wiping tears from her eyes.
“I swear I’m a strong person,” she says. “If you write that I’m crying all the time, people are going to think I’m weak. I’m not weak!”
Stanley throws her hands to her chest and squeaks out an apology.
In Stanley’s defense, she’s shedding happy tears.
The actress and singer can pull off Diana Ross hair and Aretha Franklin vocals, but diva behavior? She’s too lovable for that.
“I’m just so happy to be here,” she says, her eyes fixed on empty seats that in one week will likely be sold out. “The first day of rehearsal, I walked on stage and, oh my God, it was so overwhelming. I was standing there crying. I kept saying to the cast, ‘You just don’t know what I’m feeling.’”
Here’s what she was feeling: Joy. Relief. Gratitude. Purpose.
Surrounded by the cast of “Love, Sung in the Key of Aretha” — the WBTT season-opener, penned by Artistic Director Nate Jacobs –– the 29-year-old performer, in one tearful moment, returned to her roots.
An original member of the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, Stanley hasn’t been on the bill for a regular season show since she left the troupe in 2007 to perform in “The Color Purple” on Broadway.
“I’m looking for a little balance in my life right now,” Stanley says, “before the next wave hits.”
After coming off two national musical tours — “Rock of Ages” and “Ain’t Misbehavin’” — Stanley was ready for a breather and ready to give back to the people who helped groom her for Broadway.
She kicked off her break by taking her mother to Jamaica.
Rosa Stanley was a single mother and working as a certified nursing assistant when she moved Stanley and her younger brother from Panama City to Sarasota so they could study at Westcoast School for Human Development.
“When you’re a teenager, you can’t see what your mama is going through,” Stanley says. “But when I experienced some life, it began to unfold. After ‘Rock of Ages,’ I came home and said, ‘Mama, we’re gonna go live it up.’”
Next, she agreed to perform in the full run of “Aretha,” under the direction of Jacobs, the man whom she credits with giving her the tools to perform on Broadway.
She was a kid when she met Jacobs, then an actor on the local theater circuit and an art teacher at her school.
Within months of arriving in Sarasota, Stanley was cast as Luttibelle in Jacobs’ production of “Purlie” at the Players Theatre.
“I gave her a CD of songs from the show and I said, ‘Learn to sing these,’” Jacobs says. “She didn’t know head nor tail of what was going on. I asked her to come to our church sanctuary and sing them for me and, by God, if I hadn’t found my Luttibelle. She opened the show at 13 years old.”
Six years later, when Jacobs announced that he was forming an African-American theater troupe, Stanley signed up immediately.
“Everything I needed to use in my life, I got here,” she says.
Stanley means “here” in the metaphorical sense. The WBTT building didn’t exist when she was 20 years old and singing jazz standards in hand-me-down costumes on borrowed stages throughout Sarasota County.
“We were so dedicated to Nate’s vision. How could the troupe not soar?” Stanley asks. “We paved the way for this stage, and now here it is 11 years later. Living in New York and seeing African-Americans trying to start theater troupes, they don’t know where to begin. Nate has done it and is still doing it. It’s beautiful.”
She can’t stop reminiscing about the early days of WBTT: all the times Jacobs would wake her with a 9 a.m. phone call to tell her she had to be ready to perform in 30 minutes for a local news station, or all the times she and fellow troupe members scoured thrift stores for costumes or helped break down makeshift stages.
“I don’t think any of us knew what we had started.” Stanley says. “All I knew was I wanted to be there for it.“
As she and Jacobs sit side-by-side exchanging old stories, it becomes clear that the two share a kind of father-daughter bond. And therein lies the real reason Stanley is so emotional.
“What Nate is doing here is training Broadway stars,” Stanley says. “I’ve had to call him many times in my career to thank him.”
Jacobs remembers one of those phone calls. It came from backstage at the Broadway Theatre in Manhattan, N.Y.
Even though cell-phone use was forbidden, Stanley couldn’t resist the urge to call.
Hired as a swing actor in “The Color Purple,” she had memorized several parts in the show. However, less than an hour before curtain call, she was called in to learn a new role.
Rather than freak out over the change, she flashbacked to a memory of a high school production in which she was forced to improvise the end of the play, because Jacobs had failed to finish writing the script.
Just when Stanley was losing confidence, she remembered Jacobs rallying her and her classmates at intermission to dole out cues and directions.
“I had to call him,” she says. “The memory of that high school play pulled me through. I had to tell him that everything he ever taught us was golden. I’ve used it all.”
STANLEY’S TOP 3 ARETHA TUNES
‘Look Into Your Heart’
“It forces you to take self-inventory. When I’m at a transition in my life, that’s the song I’m hearing. ”
“This is one of those just-for-fun songs that’s about moving to the things that make you happy.”
“I saw a performance once where Aretha turned it into a song about God. You know Aretha. She’ll take it to Jesus in a minute.”
IF YOU GO
“Love In The Key of Aretha” opens Dec. 16 and runs through Jan. 16, at the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe Theater, 1646 10th Way, Sarasota. For more information, call 366-1505 or visit wbttsrq.org.
VIDEO: Teresa Stanley sings a cover of Aretha Franklin's "You're All I Need to Get By."
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