As our country is embroiled in a political battle where so much is at stake, there is a place of sanctuary in Sarasota at the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe’s current production of “How I Got Over: a Tribute to Mahalia Jackson,” created and directed by WBTT’s artistic director Nate Jacobs. I am already a huge fan of WBTT, particularly the musical productions, and “How I Got Over” is among the very best of WBTT’s work.
The actors bring unparalleled spirit to each song they perform, and I could feel the presence of faith very deeply in the messages of the moving gospel songs. As I sat in the audience of “How I Got Over,” I could better understand the important role of gospel music in maintaining the strength and hope of African-American families who have been faced with so much discrimination and loss throughout our nation’s history. In fact, Mahalia Jackson was active in the civil rights movement and sang “How I Got Over,” a story of personal survival, at the climax of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
As usual, Tarra Conner jones brought the house down with her performance of “The Trouble of The World,” and she is a true gift to the Sarasota community. She always is the beautiful thread that keeps every show she is a part of at the highest caliber. Another personal favorite of mine is Neyce Pierre who blew me away earlier this season as Shug Avery in “The Color Purple” and whose rendition of “His Eye is On the Sparrow” was lovely in every way. Earley Dean is another mainstay of the WBTT stage, and he always brings his signature smile and charisma to each performance.
Donald Frison’s emotionally riveting choreography was an integral element to the production. Especially noteworthy were newcomer Topaz Von Wood, who has tremendous Ailey lines and even trains with the great company, and Victoria Byrd, who performed an angelic rendition of “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.”
This show is ideal for all ages, and I think my five-year-old daughter Daphne would have loved it. Some of the songs are those we have all been singing since we were youngsters ourselves such as “Elijah Rock” and “He’s Got the Whole World.” Ending the show on the highest of high notes with “Oh Happy Day,” I floated out of the theater feeling joyful and faithful.
There are still tickets available for this uplifting and emotional production, a world premiere on an intimate stage. Go to http://westcoastblacktheatre.org/ for tickets, and you can subscribe for next year. I, for one, can’t wait for WBTT’s production of “The Wiz.”