If you had told anyone involved with Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe in 1999 that the company would be celebrating its 20th anniversary in a newly renovated and expanded theater, one the group owns, it’s probable that no one—not even founder and artistic director Nate Jacobs—would have believed you.
Ten years ago, Jacobs was about ready to give up on his dream with WBTT, the only African-American theater company on the west coast of Florida, and now arguably one of the most successful in the country, with audiences occupying 98 percent of its seats and an increase of 400 subscribers this season alone.
Back then, Jacobs had been struggling to keep WBTT afloat, barely paying bills and moving nomad-like from one venue to another, at the mercy of other organizations’ availability.
“I was really in a place of considering shutting the company down and moving to New York,” Jacobs recalls. “I just felt that we would never get the support we needed to survive here, and that I had done all I could personally. Maybe it was time to do what others had suggested—go to New York and become an actor-singer there.”
Then longtime civic leader Debra Jacobs [now president of the Patterson Foundation) suggested Jacobs talk to Christine Jennings, a former banker with wide community connections, about coming onboard to help make the company solvent. “I didn’t think there was any way that would happen,” he says. “[Former Asolo Rep producing artistic director] Howard Millman had been on my board for a year by then, and he said, ‘Just talk with her, share your story.’” Jacobs did, and “The next week she said she’d come on for six months. She turned everything around…got an office donated for a year, established a board. WBTT became a miracle theater.”
This month, the miracle continues as the company opens its doors for the season with a production of Tony Kushner’s prize-winning Caroline…or Change (Jan. 8-Feb. 16). That takes place in a theater building on North Orange Avenue, where a project has just been completed that expanded seating from 165 to 205 in the main theater, while quadrupling lobby size to 2,000 square feet, quadrupling restroom capacity, adding a 1,500-square-foot second stage studio, a 60-seat black box theater, principal artist dressing areas and more.
That’s all possible because of a capital campaign begun in 2016 with a goal of $6 million. “Gerri Aaron [the late longtime Sarasota philanthropist] gave $1 million, and our board matched that before we went public,” says executive director Julie Leach. The first part of the project funded by the campaign helped renovate the historic Binz Building on the WBTT campus, making room for administrative offices and outreach and education programs, as well as a rooftop event space that’s rented out to community organizations.
Meanwhile, construction costs rose, and so did the campaign goal, to $8 million. At WBTT’s 20th anniversary gala in November, Leach announced that $8.3 million had been raised.
For Leach, the best part about the renovated theater campus [with design by architect Alan Anderson] is, she says, “the additional programming we can have to accomplish our mission. In the lobby, now we can have programs there, people playing piano, singing or lectures. The Howard J. Millman Theater allows our young artists to have more small shows and build an audience, and it allows play readings of new plays. And we can fully utilize our educational and outreach building now, because we’ve had theater operations in there during the renovation. This will allow even more artist development…more training, not a school, but master classes maybe, some special weekend festivals, poetry readings. We can expand the age range of our educational programs, too.”
WBTT has already grown artistically over the past few seasons. For many audience members, the company’s bread and butter was often original musical revues showcasing the best of Motown or the songs of black performers like Mahalia Jackson or Harry Belafonte. But dramatic plays and Broadway musicals exploring the black experience and beyond have found success lately, too, with productions of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights, James Baldwin’s Amen Corner, Raisin, The Mountaintop, The Color Purple and several works by August Wilson. And that original small core of performers, often with Jacobs directing, has expanded to welcome actors from around the country and directors like Chuck Smith of Chicago’s Goodman Theatre.
For Jacobs, “It’s just so good to be some place where a key is not taken out of my hand anymore. This gives us security, grounding, pride.” And WBTT’s renovated home, he promises, “is going to blow you away.”
For tickets/info, head to westcoastblacktheatre.org or call 366-1505.