Nate Jacobs has created a love letter to life and the holiday season as his theater troupe emerges from a shutdown caused by the pandemic.
Nate Jacobs didn't just want "Joyful! Joyful!" to be a rollicking good time at the theater.
He wanted it to proclaim his joy and love for being alive.
For Jacobs, the founder and artistic director of Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, the past year had been a trying time full of artistic frustrations and health scares. His troupe had just moved into a newly renovated theater custom-built for his productions when COVID put all performances on hold, and Jacobs contracted the virus right when his passion project was interrupted.
Now, fully recovered and one week into the run of his new holiday special, Jacobs took some time to reflect.
"That changed me," says Jacobs of the journey to overcome COVID and return to putting on productions again.
"I felt like I needed to express my joy and appreciation for the gift of life in a different way. I thought about it and went into my little zone and what came out was 'Joyful! Joyful!' It’s a celebration of life. I’m happy to be here and fortunate enough to breathe the air and live my life to the fullness without being sick or handicapped from what I want to do in any way."
"Joyful! Joyful!" begins with a serene narration reminding people of all they have endured over the past year, but it quickly sets out to quicken the pulse. The set, designed by Donna and Mark Buckalter, and the costuming, done by Adrienne Pitts, are vibrant and bright, and the 14-member cast rotates in and out of songs from disparate genres and eras.
"I wanted to have an Afrocentric feel but very festive," says Jacobs. "I wanted people just to feel happy and joyful from the time they walk into the theater and the show kicks up to the time they file out the door. The designers did a phenomenal job dialing up our stage and working with Adrienne on my ideas about how I wanted the actors to be costumed. Everything worked like a symphony."
The production stars a number of WBTT regulars including Michael Mendez, Raleigh Mosely II, Leon S. Pitts II and Derric Gobourne, and Stage of Discovery student Samuel "Sammy" Waite also plays a notable role.
Donald Frison, the choreographer and co-creator of the show, says there are so many different styles in the show, from jazz and hip hop to numbers that evoke the sound and movement of a gospel choir. The cast had four weeks to learn the songs and choreography, and Frison says the challenge was to make every member of the cast appear as if they are an experienced dancer.
"We take simple movement and make it look as though they’re technical movements," says Frison. "We have big ensemble numbers, but at some point we highlight everybody. Everybody in the cast has a highlight whether it’s a solo or a duet or a trio.”
The show's music director is Matthew McKinnon, who also plays bass. The rest of the band is composed of pianist Courtland Green, Amber Robinson on auxiliary keys, guitarist Brad Foutch and drummer Michael Andrews.
Only a few members of the cast are experienced dancers, says Frison, but everyone worked hard to perfect their roles.
Jacobs says when he was creating "Joyful! Joyful!" that he was inspired by singers like Gladys Knight and Stevie Wonder as well as bands like Earth, Wind & Fire, the Staples Singers and Sweet Honey in the Rock. He wanted to bring unique arrangements to holiday classics that people had seldom heard, and he wanted to make sure that the selection of numbers seemed timeless.
The show closes with a rendition of "Joyful! Joyful!," the closing tune from the musical Sister Act 2, and there's a gospel rendition of Handel's Hallelujah Chorus earlier in the show. That's all part of the plan to take the familiar and mix in some surprises.
"We do an African Drummer Boy, with these African drums and these phenomenal harmonies from the singers. We do a number that almost sounds like a folk or country number. We do gospel. We do R&B," says Jacobs. "It’s exciting to see how the old traditional music still affects us in this world. It brings that warmth and comfort and festive spirit that holiday music brings to us."
Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe had one previous show this season, "Eubie!", and is gearing up for a full season in 2022 that will include "Ruby," an original production about a real life story from Live Oak, Florida, set in the 1950s. Jacobs is also running educational camps for kids and programs that work in concert with the local school system, and he's hoping to expand those offerings over time.
“We waited many, many years before we had a home," he says. "We did this wonderful renovation thanks to the city and people who understand supporting the arts in this area. We had our brand new theater and we had to go dark. It was quite a journey."
The troupe has always referred to their holiday specials as their Christmas cards, and now they have a third offering to work into the mix. Frison says "Joyful! Joyful!" was fun to work on not only because it was music that they hadn't staged before, but also because of the context. It's the first work that he and Jacobs have collaborated on in the home theater, and he hopes to work on several more.
"This is an amazing show," says Frison.
"We’re happy and joyful to be back in the theater and back on the stage," he says. "Everything was closed down. Theater-goers were hurting. But now theaters are opening back up and Broadway is opening back up. It feels like we have life again. We’re very excited about it."
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