In a small theater north of downtown, the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe (WBTT) raised the roof in a rousing production of It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues, which runs through May 12. Tickets to the season’s remaining shows are scarce, and it’s no wonder. From the minute the WBTT ensemble came on stage, you could feel this was something special that you just had to be a part of. Word around town has been that this is the show to see right now.The cast came out on stage in high-energy mode, dancing and singing, their bodies undulating in perfect synchronicity with the music as they began a roughly two-hour journey through the history of blues music. The taint of slavery and its impact on the dance and music of black people was key in the entire production, and the cast captured the gravity of that experience in their performances.
As the troupe transitioned from songs sung to cope with enslavement, to the second act set in nightclubs and theaters, the musical and dance vocabulary remained an enduring thread. You could see the deep rhythmic movements of the dances of slavery carry through to the later showstoppers such as “Fever,” “Good Night Irene” and a haunting rendition of “Strange Fruit,” a once-forbidden song about lynchings in the South. The company also did a beautiful job demonstrating the strong connection of country and honkytonk music to the blues.
WBTT recently raised enough funds to purchase their building, and the space is an intimate black box theater that allows the audience great sight lines of the performers and the other audience members. I mention this because the only downside of the show for me was that the performers had such outsized talent that I often felt, particularly in the dance numbers, that they were constrained by the space. I wanted to watch them fly across the stage, and it was clear they were fully capable of doing so, but they seemed to have to stop short on a few occasions to ensure they didn’t end up in the lap of an audience member.There was one man in the front row who wouldn’t have minded that a bit, as he just barely stayed in his seat and frequently hit the stage with both hands to convey his deep appreciation for the production. I love to see someone so engaged with a show, so his reaction to this amazing production was endearing. To their credit, the cast never got rattled, and I think they appreciated the enthusiasm. At the conclusion of the show, they seemed to be signaling that we should all get up and dance, but the largely staid audience remained complacent and seated until the show was clearly over and then leapt to their feet for a standing ovation.
In another lovely and meaningful touch to the production, the entire cast formed a receiving line to thank the audience for coming. I enjoyed the opportunity to pay tribute to each of them one-on-one at the evening’s end, because these were such special performers who put so much into the production.
Lesson learned: If you want to see the WBTT, buy tickets early. The level of production is so high and the ticket prices so reasonable, it is likely that next year’s whole season will quickly sell out. That’s a risk you don’t want to take, because this gem of a theater company won’t be flying below the radar much longer. Although It Ain’t Nothin but the Blues is close to selling out, if you call the box office (941-366-1505) they may be able to find a few seats so you don’t miss this incredible show. For tickets for the final show of the season, Aunt Rudele’s Family Reunion, along with next season’s series, go to wbttsrq.org.