Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe ushers in a new generation of performers with Stage of Discovery.
Have you ever wondered what it would have been like to meet Smokey Robinson, Berry Gordy or Diana Ross? Well, Sarasota teens might not have met them, but they did get the chance to perform their work in “A Journey to Motown,” written by Adrienne Pitts and directed by WBTT Founder Nate Jacobs.
Each summer, Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe welcomes teens to audition and participate in its five-week intensive summer musical program, Stage of Discovery.
The program, in its fourth summer, offers the chance to glimpse the professional theater industry.
“We do a special outreach for kids of color who we deem underserved when it comes to this kind of opportunity,” Jacobs said. “And it’s not just black kids because there are some white parents who are busy, busy, busy.”
Donors helped make it possible for Jacobs to keep WBTT’s residential staff on as part of Stage of Discovery, which allows the students to receive advanced training in singing, dancing and acting.
“A Journey to Motown,” which was performed on July 12 at Neel Performing Arts Theater, featured songs from music icons. The plot follows a group of school kids on a field trip at the Detroit Motown Museum nicknamed “Hitsville USA.” But what begins as a regular school outing soon takes a turn.
One student notices a figure of Berry Gordy, played by AJ White, that wasn’t there before. And in addition to popping up out of nowhere, the figure comes to life and introduces the students to his friend Smokey Robinson, played by Nick Rosario.
Throughout the show, the record executive and singer-songwriter act as the emcees of the musical revue as they introduce the students to Motown legends, such as The Marvelettes, The Supremes, The Jackson 5 and Stevie Wonder.
The show offered an opportunity for students to train in theatrics while also taking a deeper look at the historical side of each character and the struggles African American performers had to overcome during the Civil Rights era.
Played by the older students, the musical acts came out to introduce themselves and showcase hits including “You Can’t Hurry Love” by The Supremes, “Pride and Joy” by Marvin Gay and “Everybody Needs Love” by Mary Wells and The Temptations.
With the 60th anniversary of Motown, Jacobs said it was important to him that WBTT found a way to celebrate the life’s work of Gordy.
“I wanted to be a part of that celebration,” Jacobs said. “I thought it would be nice to get these kids … exposed to the music, the history, the founders, the artists and all of the wonderful information of a lot of their culture when it comes to American music.”
Todd Bellamy II, 17, who has been in the program since it began, portrayed Marvin Gaye.
“[The teachers] told us to look into our characters — to look into how they walk, how they talk, what they did and what their history was,” he said. “That’s what an actor is being all about. It’s about learning those characters if you’re more than one, and it’s just a lot of fun to learn about their history.”
In “A Journey to Motown,” Alitash Tafesse, 12, played the role of Lauren, who she helped craft through a character development sheet that asked campers to think about what their characters’ styles, zodiac signs and mannerisms are.
Tafesse, in her third summer of Stage of Discovery, said when she first began the program, she wasn’t fully confident in her abilities. But after she started training at WBTT, she discovered a part of herself that she didn’t know existed.
“I’ve learned how to stand up for myself a lot more this summer because Mr. Jacobs has been giving us a lot of great speeches,” she said. “He had a speech about taking your own chances, and that inspired me.
“I asked, ‘May I have a song? May have some character development?’ The next day, I got a song. I got character development. I was like, ‘Wow, if I had done this the last two years, the possibilities [would have been] endless. … I’ve learned to take my own shots.”