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Arts and Entertainment Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020 11 months ago

WBTT is the little theater that could — and did

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Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe opens its new stage, completing a 20-year odyssey
by: Klint Lowry Arts + Entertainment Editor

The start of a new season is always an exciting time for a theater group. But as the lights go up this week for the opening of “Caroline, or Change,” it holds much greater significance for Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe and for its founder and artistic director, Nate Jacobs.

Jacobs has been wanting to do this show for years, ever since he saw it on Broadway. But the decision to finally do “Caroline, or Change” to open the season is more like uncorking that expensive bottle of champagne you’ve stored away for a special occasion. That occasion is the christening of WBTT’s fully rebuilt theater, the culmination of a four-year project and a 20-year quest.

Three weeks earlier, Jacobs is in his office at WBTT. “I am thrilled and cannot wait for those lights to come up on that new stage,” he says. “To be able to be opening our first show in a brand new theater, which I have seen materialize, is one of the most amazing times in my life and in the journey of this vision for me.”

Seated in his corner office, Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe Artistic Director Nate Jacobs could have scarcely imagined 10 years ago the home the troupe has today.

It was still far enough away from opening night that Jacobs had time to reflect on that journey. Back when he started WBTT 20 years ago, he says, his vision didn’t include him sitting in an office at a theater complex. He was just an actor trying to start a theater troupe — emphasis on the word “troupe,” a group of actors roaming around putting on shows. That was what he pictured when he started. But he and his vision matured together.

“Every institution needs a home,” Jacobs says. Just 10 years ago, he’d already been chasing his dream for 10 years, for most of that time performing wherever and whenever they could, and Jacobs wasn’t sure if he could go on. The troupe had made a name for itself, but he was burned out on the constant struggle to find funding and performance spaces.

In 2007, when the Historic Asolo Theatre had been renovated, WBTT was invited to perform there, but that arrangement only lasted a year and a half. After that, it was offered a space at Art Center Sarasota. The space was small, and WBTT had to tear down the theater every night and turn it back into an art gallery. With almost no advertising budget, the troupe’s one asset was the reputation it had built.

“I knew the people who supported us — they were trying to figure out, ‘OK, where are they this year?’” Jacobs says. Eventually, the community found them, but that only served to show how insufficient the makeshift space was. The folks at Art Center Sarasota decided they just couldn’t let the troupe operate there.

It’s who you know and what they know

Jacobs says he feels fortunate that he’s always had supportive people in his life. But it was right around that time, he says, that WBTT’s fortunes took a dramatic turn for the better when Christine Jennings threw in her support and knowhow as the theater’s first CEO. Jennings, a former banker, was and is one of the most well-known and influential people in Sarasota, and she was well-versed in fundraising and garnering community support for 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations like WBTT.

“She got very aggressive,” Jacobs says. “She said: ‘Why in the world does this community feel like you don’t need the funding and like you don’t need a space to do what you’re doing? They know what you’re doing. And the board and I have decided we are going to work very aggressively to get you a permanent place. We want to pay it off, so nobody will ever come and take it away from you.’ And they did just that.”

WBTT moved into its current location on Orange Avenue in 2010, first leasing space in a warehouse it shared with a fencing school. But just as the troupe was enjoying some firm footing, Jacobs says, Jennings came in one day and said, “Nate, you’re not going to like what I have to tell you.”

The property had gone into foreclosure, and that firm ground felt a lot shakier as the property passed from bank to bank. Finally, the site was put up for auction, the price set at $700,000.

“Christine said, ‘Put in half, and see what happens,’” Jacobs says. “We did, and it said ‘Accepted.’” With that, WBTT owned its theater, along with the historic Binz Building next to it and the surrounding parking. The troupe began fundraising on an ambitious $8 million renovation project.

With the sign that adorns its front, the Binz Building could be mistaken for an old-time theater. In reality, it serves as the administrative and educational wing of the complex. As Jacobs’ dream has taken physical form, its sense of purpose has grown.

Final preparations are made on WBTT's new theater, the last part part of an $8 million refurbishing project.

For years before he started WBTT, he says, he felt like there was a vicious cycle in local theater. Aspiring black actors didn’t see much opportunity in the roles that were available, so they didn’t go to auditions. Theaters didn’t see much interest from black actors, so they never considered the range of roles they offered.

Jacobs says one of his goals in starting WBTT was to show young black performers that there was room on the stage for them and to encourage young talent. Education has become a big part of WBTT, with its Stage of Discovery summer program for teens and the Young Artist Program, which gives young performers the opportunity to create and present their own shows.

WBTT is “throwing out the net” as Jacobs puts it, “so they realize that if that is your desire, and that is your dream, there is opportunity. And there are possibilities to express yourself through the arts.”

Theater with a message

“Caroline, or Change” is a great vehicle with which to introduce the new theater, Jacobs says, and it’s a terrific show for WBTT. It’s a challenging production, and it presents challenging themes. The title character is a single mother who works as a maid for a Jewish family in the 1960s.

“The little Jewish boy is very close to the black maid because she pretty much raised him,” Jacobs says, and the boy “cannot understand why life is different for the two of them.” Caroline doesn’t have any answers for him while both their families go through those turbulent times.

The play shows life throws out challenges, and culture has a lot to do with what life throws at you, Jacobs says, and very often we just have to deal with it. 

“So there’s a powerful message,” he says. “And for a community like Sarasota, I think it’s going to be a powerful, powerful message.”

When Jacobs was starting WBTT, the Sarasota Arts Council urged him to reconsider the name, suggesting it might put off audiences and potential donors.

Jacobs says he politely listened to their advice and never once considered following it. Race will always be an issue in our society, he says, so it’s a matter of choice whether to let it drive wedges or build bridges.

“It’s important for each culture to tell their story,” Jacobs says. “We are responsible for celebrating the Josephine Bakers and the Cab Calloways and the James Baldwins. It’s the theater’s responsibility. If we don’t tell them, the stories are not told. The information is not propagated to generation after generation. So that is the true purpose of black theater: to keep stories alive. That’s our responsibility.”

Jacobs has been gratified to find that when you tell your story with enthusiasm, with joy, everyone is interested. For the people outside that culture, it’s a chance to learn. It can be educational for the people within the culture as well, but it’s also a point of pride. If you can package that into a night of high-quality entertainment — well, there’s a reason WBTT has been playing to near capacity for years now.

Patrons installed a fountain between the buildings at WBTT to make sure Nate Jacobs' name would always be in a prominent place.

Some people have called WBTT a miracle, Jacobs says, and sometimes he feels that way himself. It has persevered through all kinds of conditions. Now it has a sleek, modern facility with every amenity a theater company could hope for.

On top of its tangible assets, Jacobs says, the theater makes an identity statement of its own.

“You’re more stable,” he says. “The donors feel that you’re solid, you’re here to stay. The artists feel secure because we are stable.

“Yes, it makes all the difference. For me, that pressure and that burden, constantly having to figure out, ‘OK, Nate, where are you guys going to go this year? And how much craziness you’re going to have to deal with?’”

It’s the start of a new season. After 20 years, the dream is over. Reality has exceeded it.

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