t was hard not to see Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe’s sold out performance of “Jazz Hot Mamas” last Saturday evening as the perfect capstone of the Selma 50 commemorations taking place that day. President Obama said, “Selma’s about each of us asking ourselves what we can do to make America better.”
Westcoast Black Theatre Company (WBTT), now in its fifteenth year, is certainly a large part of making the local Sarasota community better by entertaining audiences with some of the best shows in town and also sharing the rich history of African American culture. At one point during the show, the ladies say, “our people sing the blues like no one else.” At the core of each of the performances I have seen is a deep acknowledgment of our country’s bitter history of racism and also a celebration of the talent and artistry of some of the greatest musicians the world has ever known. This beautiful show explores the work of the first ladies of song.
“We’ve performed many shows that feature male superstars, but hardly any about women celebrities and none about the wonderful women jazz singers of the ‘50s and ‘60s,” said WBTT’s founder and artistic director, Nate Jacobs. “Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday, Peggy Lee, and Sarah Vaughn are just a few of the legends who influenced the international music world with their dynamic voices and distinctive style. We are proud to honor their legacy through this original show.”
The four Jazz Hot Mamas, Matelyn Alicia, Naarai Jacobs, Kenessa “Neyce” Pierre, Teresa Stanley have huge vocal ranges and major talent that they use to explore the depths and the heights of humanity. The ladies performed an array of mostly familiar songs from joyful numbers like my personal favorite (I performed it once at Don’t Tell Mama in Manhattan) “Peel Me a Grape” to the melancholy “My Man” about the domestic abuses suffered by Holiday.
Despite the exploration of some difficult subject matter, the cast kept the evening light, and I loved hearing their tremendous vocal acrobatics. I found myself marveling at the notes the ladies could hit – their voices rival any I have heard. They garnered several standing ovations throughout the evening after songs like the moving rendition of “My Funny Valentine” and the pinnacle of the evening, a largely acappella version of “Strange Fruit,” by Stanley, who just spent the last two years on Broadway in “Rock of Ages.”
Stanley’s rendition of “Strange Fruit” was stunning in its simplicity. You could see “black bodies swinging in the Southern sky” as Stanley illustrated the scene with the nuance of her performance. Seeing this tremendous performance on this momentous day, 50 years after Bloody Sunday, when African Americans were brutally attacked by officers acting under the “color of the law,” was truly poignant and moving.
WBTT is such an important asset to our community for entertainment, education, awareness, and even potentially as a vehicle for social change. Although the show is sold out, you can call the box office to try to find any last minute availability. http://westcoastblacktheatre.org/
Photos by Dan Daly Photo