Nate Jacobs returns to the roots to conclude his highly successful 15th season of the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe by restaging his very first production in Sarasota, “The Cotton Club Cabaret.” WBTT is by now notorious for sold-out shows and bringing down the house with soulful performances by a cast who leave it all on the floor, night after night.
Jacobs began this Saturday’s performance paying tribute to Debra Jacobs, President of the Patterson Foundation, with whom he shared his vision for the company fifteen years ago. She told him he would give his life to the theater, and he confessed that he had. His life’s work, dedication, and talent was honored this year by the City naming “Nate Jacobs Way” the street running right in front of the theater- celebrating his accomplishments in the Sarasota community.
Perhaps the greatest artistic creativity can be borne in strife, so “The Cotton Club” is an interesting and informative choice to close the season. When you sit down you immediately see the street signs 125th Street and Lenox Avenue and are instantly transported to the Harlem Renaissance. Although I delighted in studying the Harlem Renaissance in art, literature, and music, in college, the ugly history of the period is quite difficult to bear. The cast shares early on in the production that some of the greatest artists at the time performed at the Cotton Club on a stage before which they couldn’t be seated, because the owner had an all white audience policy. This important part of our history must not be forgotten as we struggle to come to grips with racial inequity.
But it was on with the show, and quite appropriately, the cast began with “The Joint is Jumpin’” and set the tone for what would be a rousing and incredible evening of entertainment. It is nice in such an intimate theater to be able to watch the audience as they delighted in one great number after another.
Right off the bat, Tara Conner Jones pulled out all the stops in “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer.” And throughout the evening, Jones proves the soul of the production with a seemingly limitless vocal range and easy stage presence that makes you want to get to know her.
The Jon Legend look-alike Earley Dean soared in his numbers, particularly a brilliant Cab Calloway number “Minnie the Moocher,” in which he brought down the house before the intermission.
We returned for the second act to the instantly addictive, “Sing, Sing, Sing,” performed beautifully by the female cast. Marta McKinnon really excelled in the second act with a flawless rendition of “Good Morning Heartache,” in a strong performance as Billie Holiday.
McKinnon also gave a wonderful performance of “A Jig in the Jungle,” in which the performers gave a nod to the fact that the Cotton Club shows perpetuated stereotypes to appeal to their audiences. She owned the piece so that the original intent of that number dissipated and only the love of dance remained. McKinnon radiates joy and graciousness both on and off the stage.
The back-up dancers were a wonderful addition to the show and the infectious smile, personality, and tremendous skill of Chakara Rosa was a treat of the evening. Indeed just as the program states about Rosa, “she shines like a ball of fire every moment she hits the stage.”
This show is absolutely not to be missed! The Westcoast Black Theatre Company consistently outdoes itself with its tremendous performances. I can’t wait to see what is in store for next season, and tickets are already on sale. Go to the website for information about both. www.westcoastblackthatre.org.