Jnana Wilson Cooper isn't just a founding member of the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe. She's more like family.
He was always there as a presence in her life, perhaps even before she was born.
And to hear Jnana Wilson Cooper tell it, Nate Jacobs knew her before she knew herself. Now, 35 years after she was a student in his kindergarten class and 20-plus years after she became a founding member of the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, Cooper is coming home to perform in the Donelly Theatre — the stage her talent helped build — for the first time.
“To see it now and remember where we’ve come from? It’s kind of mind-blowing,” says Cooper, who will perform her special concert presentation on June 13. “It was Nate's vision. And we went along with his vision.
"But I don't think that we knew that it would turn out to be this big and this awesome when we first started.”
Cooper, who last performed with the WBTT at their 20th anniversary show in 2019, can’t help but take a mental journey through the years when she’s asked about Jacobs. Her parents knew Jacobs from their church, and she wound up knowing him as a kindergarten student at the Westcoast School for Human Development.
Jacobs was fresh out of college at that point, and he says he was still figuring out how to chart his own career progression.
The future theater founder was working at the school founded by his mentors, Henry Porter and Cynthia Porter, and he was moonlighting as an actor at the Asolo Repertory Theatre.
Each and every day, be began finding his own talent while nurturing those of his students.
“I came in to teach art. And I stayed longer and longer,” says Jacobs. “I did one year and said, ‘I’ll stay another year.’ It ended up being 12 years. And while I was there, that school provided an incubator for me to discover the gift i had with young people. For me, it was like a sixth sense.
"I saw it as clear as day. That one should be singing. And that one right there has the ability to dance. I was just like the guru pulling out the talent out of these kids. It was amazing to the church and the church members and the parents of these kids. So that's where the orbit of me founding this theater company began, because all of them were still children.”
Jacobs began thriving as an actor, and he was so taken with the abilities of his students that he looked for new ways to showcase his talent. He started wondering why there was no local community theater seeking to develop the talents of young African-American children. And that’s when it hit him; if it was going to happen, he’d have to build it himself.
“I was doing this thing with kids of color in the school, but I didn’t see that anywhere else in the city. That began to bother me,” says Jacobs. “I began to ask questions to the theatre community of Sarasota, and they were looking at me like I was from Oz. You know the sitcom “Mork and Mindy?” I was Mork.
"It was like, ‘Well, Nate, you’re the only one talking about it.’ I said, ‘This needs to change.’ The founder of the school, Dr. Porter, had already told me, ‘Well, that’s probably not going to happen until you do it, Nate.’ But that went over my head.”
Cooper, for her part, was growing up and thinking about the next steps of her life. She wasn’t sure she wanted to be a performer at first, and she was studying at Manatee Community College to figure out what would come next. Jacobs, at first, asked her if she’d be willing to help with administrative tasks around the office.
And she was only too happy to help.
But then fate intervened.
A push in the right direction
Jacobs, who had incorporated the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe in 1999, got an opportunity to stage his first shows in Sarasota at TheatreWorks. But he was short-staffed, and he needed to be around performers he could trust to nail their role no questions asked. Jacobs says that when he held his first auditions, nobody showed up for two hours.
Then came Teresa Stanley, whom he had worked with at the school since she was about 12 years old.
The next person to come in, Tsadok Porter, was the daughter of his mentors.
“It was the three of us and a musician and a friend of mine in the studio. And I thought, OK, I need a few more people to do what I'm trying to do,” he says. “I got on the phone and called Jnana, and she said to me, ‘I don’t sing like those other girls.’ She was still a beginning singer, but she always did my narration work because she was so good at expressing words.
“I actually kind of forcefully told her to come over. She and another girl, Apphia Campbell; I said, ‘Girl, come over here to this studio. You can do everything I want you to do.’ Jnana came because she respected me and trusted me, not because she wanted to at that moment."
Henry Porter II would become the final founding member of the company, and the troupe’s first play was The Cotton Club Cabaret, part musical revue and history lesson of the Harlem Renaissance.
And for Cooper, she realized she wanted to be a performer, full stop.
“You grow up and you're finding yourself. That’s where I was,” she says of her mindset before that first play changed her perspective. “I knew who I was the whole time! What am I finding, trying to be all deep? Young people try to be extra. It wasn’t even that deep at all. It was there the whole time.”
And if you ask Jacobs, the rest was pre-destined or divinely ordered. Jnana Wilson Cooper became one of the rocks on which he would build his theater company, and for more than a decade, she was ever-present as the WBTT found its legs.
Cooper’s siblings Earley Dean and Kristin Wilson also performed for WBTT, and Dean is still active with the troupe.
But the success of the company was never a foregone conclusion, says Jacobs. There were many years where they had to fight to make their voices heard.
Though the early years were difficult, says Jacobs, one thing was constant: Cooper wasn’t just an outstanding performer; she was a fierce advocate for everything WBTT aspired to be.
“She protected what she did,” says Jacobs. “There was a lot of pushback to a black theater organization introducing itself to Sarasota. We weren’t embraced with welcoming arms like we are now. We were not the popular WBTT, but Jnana was one of those young people who are resilient. She endured sometimes hearing people being nasty and disrespectful to me.
"She endured the ups-and-downs and the in-betweens and rehearsing in closets. She was one that stood with me during those eras and always brought excellence to the stage whenever she performed. And I said to her, ‘I will never forget you.’”
Cooper, meanwhile, was growing up and falling in love. She married her husband, an engineer, and ultimately left Sarasota to move to Michigan in 2013. Cooper stresses that she was not ending her performing career; she was just pausing it to raise her children. Now, her first-born daughter Gabriella is 10, and her second child Elisha is 6.
She’s not sure if either one has been bitten with the performance bug, but she says she can see the faint ember of their talents if they choose to pursue it.
Cooper, coming home for her one-night performance, says it will be humbling to look out into the audience and see faces that she’s literally seen since she’s a child.
“It will be an honor,” she says. “It will be a time to let them know that things that were sown into me did not go to bad soil. It will be a lot of emotions that I can't really articulate. it's just awesome to come back to let them see that I'm a grown woman.
“When you've been away for so long, things happen. People change. People pass away. People move away. People’s circumstances change. It’s humbling to know that people still remember me and they still want to see me. It blows your mind because you think these people forgot about me. Out of sight out of mind. But no, I made an impact.”
Not only did she make an impact, she built bonds that will last a lifetime. Jacobs says that Cooper is like a daughter to him, and she says she’s eternally grateful to have met him as a child.
A few months ago, she says, she was sent a link to a New York Times article featuring Jacobs and WBTT, and she was just thrilled to be part of the journey.
“You made it, Nate!” she says. “It’s weird that we call him Nate, because forever he was Mr. Jacobs. He moved from our teacher to friend. It was so exciting to read.
"He still mentioned us; that’s what I love about him. There are so many things, but I appreciate him for never allowing people to forget who helped him. ‘You see me a lot and I’m the face of the company, but it was a lot of people who helped me to get here.’ He never forgets about the six of us.”
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