Over the past few seasons, Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe has blossomed in many ways, presenting more ambitious works like this year’s In the Heights, and bringing in professionals from other parts of the country to perform in or direct some of its shows. But its bread and butter has seemed to remain in the musical revues, performed with energy and spirit, that feed the memories of its—ahem—older audience members.
Such is the case with the current production, Soul Man, created, adapted and directed by WBTT artistic director Nate Jacobs. As he’s done in the past, Jacobs has selected from a treasure trove of hits, from the likes of Sam Cooke, James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Ray Charles and more to summon up nostalgia and get folks in the seats movin’ and groovin’. And, once again, the framework and the narration of the show are secondary to the music and dance numbers that are what viewers will take away with them.
Here, the setup is introducing a modern-day hip hopper named Breezy Weezy (Derrick Gobourne Jr.) and showing him, through the guidance of DJ Diamond (Ariel Blue) and five “soul men,” just how wrong he is to think his own music sprang from nowhere but his own head. Breezy needs to learn how the music of the 1960s, in particular, was the soundtrack to a decade of social change and turmoil, and how he and his contemporaries remain impacted by it today.
That conceit leaves Gobourne with the rather thankless task of often standing around, arms folded, while being schooled by Diamond and the soul men. They get to pour their hearts out and move in lively fashion, through Donald Frison’s always exhilarating choreography, while he’s pretty much sidelined.
But enough about that; you want to know about the songs. They range from ensemble numbers like “Twistin’ the Night Away,” to help get the party started, to more poignant solo renditions like Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me” or Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” (both performed by Sheldon Rhoden) and Leon Pitts’ fevered “When A Man Loves a Woman” to Michael Mendez delivering Smokey Robinson’s “Tracks of My Tears,” backed with harmonies from the rest of the ensemble, which includes Henry Washington and Raleigh Mosely II. Washington gets to tackle Eddie Floyd’s hit “Knock On Wood”; Raleigh to lead on the angrier “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and “Say It Loud.” Along the way, you’ll also hear hits from Pickett (“Mustang Sally”), Sam and Dave (“Hold On I’m Coming” and “I Thank You”), and Jackie Wilson (“Baby Workout”).
Often, the songs are performed against a backdrop of changing images from the era, like photographs of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or Jesse Jackson, or, as on “Tracks of My Tears,” rain-streaked glass. Throughout it all, the band, led by music director James E. Dodge II, is stalwart and adept at shifting tempo. And the show’s closing numbers, “Everybody Needs Someone to Love” and “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher,” which Blue gets to lead on, are definitely rousers that will send people home energized.
As long as there are hits from the 1960s and ’70s to be showcased, it seems WBTT will always have a new revue to offer. Soul Man continues through May 26; for tickets call 366-1505 or visit westcoastblacktheatre.org.