On any given night of the week during the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe's production season, theatre-goers flock to sold-out shows in the troupe's unique theater space, breathing new life into a neighborhood that for decades languished on the northern outskirts of downtown Sarasota.
The story begins in 1999 with the organization's artistic director and playwright, Nate Jacobs, who prior to founding the WBTT, immersed himself in the local performing arts community as a teacher, stage actor and playwright. Jacobs' dream of establishing the first black theatre troupe on Florida’s Gulf Coast materialized in the historic Asolo Theatre, where he noted that he was the sole member of a virtually non-existent population of black actors working in Sarasota's nationally acclaimed performing arts community during the 1990s.
"I realized the need for diversity and inclusiveness. … I was sitting in the back of the green room one night, and I said to myself, 'There has to be a theatre.' To me, that meant I had to start a theatre company. I realized then that it was inevitable; that it was my calling,'' Jacobs recalls.
Jacobs ventured directly into the local black communities of West Central Florida in search of potential actors. He sought to provide a better opportunity for young black actors to succeed in Sarasota than he had had as a young performer.
"I knocked on doors; I approached people in supermarkets to ask, 'Do you want to do the play?' Some people were very green to theater, but they were enthusiastic and talented. I would give them training and groom them for the stage, and then shows would open and everyone would say, 'Where did these people come from?' '' Jacobs recalls.
From Sarasota To Manhattan To Europe
Nationally recognized actors who launched careers on the West Coast Black Theatre Troupe
stage under the direction of Jacobs include Bradenton's Teresa Stanley, who went on to star in the Broadway production of "Rock of Ages,'' and Christopher Eisenberg, a Season 5 competitor on "America's Got Talent.'' In recent years, the troupe has performed to sold-out crowds in Switzerland and Germany, as well as in the prestigious National Black Theatre Festival
in North Carolina.
"No other theatre in the area is highlighting young artists and putting them up on a platform like the WBTT does,'' says 22-year-old Michael Mendez. Mendez is currently playing his first lead role in the troupe as a young Harry Belafonte in Jacobs' original production, "Harry and Lena,'' based on the lives of African-American Actors and Activists Harry Belafonte and Lena Horne.
"Every time our regular audience members come in, they have their favorites who they've seen evolve on stage from their first show. That shows me that people really care about the art we're doing. … I feel that WBTT is truly the vanguard of that movement,'' Mendez adds.
Despite the talent Jacobs cultivated on the stage from the troupe's onset, he says operating the WBTT by himself was an uphill battle during the organization's early years, particularly without a permanent performance space.
By the end of a decade spent staging nomadic theater productions and enduring a slew of financial growing pains that left the WBTT $150,000 in debt, Jacobs admits the future of the theatre troupe was in peril when he was approached by Theatre Veteran Howard Millman, former director of the Asolo Reperatory Theatre
in Sarasota. Millman advised Jacobs to seek a partner who could operate the business side of the theatre so that Jacobs could continue to focus on its artistic direction.
A Banker With A Vision And A Plan
In June, 2009, Millman arranged a meeting between Jacobs and Christine Jennings, former Congressional candidate and founder of the successful independent bank, Sarasota Bank. Jennings agreed to join the organization for a six-month financial-restructuring period and enlisted the assistance of friend and Consultant Michael Shelton.
After drafting a full business plan for the WBTT, Jennings set about paying off the troupe's debts in a manner not dissimilar to Jacobs' face-to-face approach to actor recruitment.
"We sat down with Nate and compiled a list of everyone the troupe owed money, and then Michael and I called everyone on that list and met them in person to arrange payment plans,'' Jennings recalls.
In the meantime, Jennings also arranged a fundraising gala at popular upscale restaurant Michael's on East, drawing nearly 400 supporters and establishing an annual tradition that contributes greatly to the organization's financial sustainability.
Within six months, the WBTT was no longer bleeding money and Jennings accepted a permanent role as the troupe's CEO. Local Philanthropist Gerri Aaron donated $15,000 to pay off the remaining 10 percent of the debt in April 2010, and today, Jennings says the organization's annual budget is $1.2 million. Furthermore, its membership has increased from 750 to over 3,600 annual subscriptions since 2010.
"Diversity has been, for many years, very important to me. It fulfilled my dream to act on some of the ideas that mattered to me,'' Jennings says.
Infusing Cultural Life Into A Neglected Community
In the spring of 2013, the WBTT found its first permanent performance space in the historic Binz Building on the outskirts of downtown Sarasota.
The Binz sits alongside railroad tracks that brought influential socialites and entrepreneurs to Sarasota during the Florida Land Boom of the 1920s, many of whom envisioned a city steeped in affluent culture. However, the thumb of racial segregation drew a divisive line in Sarasota throughout the first half of the 20th century. Buildings like the Binz, built in 1926 as a storage space for Sarasota's wealthy seasonal residents, ultimately languished for decades in the cultural "no-man's land'' between downtown Sarasota's primary retail district and the community of Newtown, a predominantly black community that has been historically excluded from the arts.
"We are beginning to infuse cultural life into a community that has been, for the most part, non-existent,'' Jacobs says, "by gleaning members out of the community to be on stage and fulfill their dreams of being in the arts.''
The WBTT purchased the 2-acre lot that includes the Binz Building, as well as an adjacent 15,000-square-foot warehouse, where the troupe built an unusually intimate theatre space for $450,000 in March 2013.
"We were very committed to having the theatre in the community that so many of its artists come from. When the building went into foreclosure, we realized it was the perfect building for us. It's truly a unique space,'' says WBTT Board Chair Julie Leach.
"I really do believe that the small size of our theatre space is very appealing to people. How often to do you really get to see the actor sweat; the expression, the eyes, the mouth? You almost never in life get to see that. People are very drawn to it,'' Jennings adds.
Jacobs says the troupe's goals for the near future are to establish a box office and administrative offices, as well as an education center, in the Binz. In the meantime, the theatre is raising funds for renovation, in part through sold-out shows during its 2013-2014 season, themed "Rhythms of Change.''
Jacobs says the theme focuses on how the African-American experience in entertainment has and continues to evolve, and how that experience is reflected in the popular music, philosophy and entertainment trends of the 20th century. The troupe also launched a panel discussion program in February called "WBTT Voices: A Communication Forum'' to promote provocative discussions about black entertainment in the Sarasota community.
"The higher the intellect, the more open a community is to change and differences. Because of the intellect in this area and the sophistication in its arts culture, the people here want variety -- which is what the WBTT offers,'' Jennings says.
"Theatre professionals and educators who come here tell me they have never seen a white community support a black theatre on this scale,'' Jacobs says.
"People from all over the nation call us 'The Miracle Theatre.' ''
Jessi Smith, a native Floridian, is a freelance writer who lives and works in downtown Sarasota. When she isn't writing about local arts and culture, she can generally be found practicing yoga or drinking craft beers and talking about her magnificent cat. Jessi received her bachelor's degree in art history from Florida International University and, predictably, perpetually smells of patchouli.. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.