In the mood for some holiday cheer? Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe is always happy to oblige this time of year—this season, with a brand-new show called Joyful! Joyful!, because that’s the way artistic director and show creator Nate Jacobs says he feels for the company having come through the pandemic thus far.
Of course, WBTT has welcomed the holidays before with shows that were pretty joyful, like Langston Hughes’ Black Nativity and Jacobs’ own Motown Christmas. This time around, Jacobs has chosen to center his tune-filled musical revue on two aspects of the Black musical experience: the African rhythms of most Black Americans’ history, and the rhythm and blues and gospel sounds they created here. Oh, there’s also a little bit of Handel thrown in, with the ensemble’s own version of the “Hallelujah Chorus” opening the production.
As you might expect from a WBTT show, there’s plenty of energy and plenty of smiles, enhanced as both often are by the choreography of Donald Frison. Working on a stage set adorned with gift boxes that double as platforms, backed by an offstage band led by Matthew McKinnon, the 14-member cast segues from rousing, hand-clapping versions of carols to more traditional renditions like Katherine Taylor’s lovely delivery of “The First Noel.”
In addition to Taylor, there’s a mix of familiar and not so familiar faces on the WBTT stage. If you have seen WBTT shows before, you’ll be glad to spot dancer extraordinaire Derric Gobourne Jr. again, along with popular performers like Leon S. Pitts II, Raleigh Mosely II and Michael Mejia-Mendez; that male ensemble moves sharply and snappily on numbers like “Enjoy Yourself” and “Up on the Housetop,” where a young Samuel Waite takes the lead à la Michael Jackson.
The female ensemble here has some faces we’ve seen before, too, like Delores McKenzie, Marta McKinnon, Amber Myers and Annaya Osborne. They sway barefoot wearing colorful African-inspired skirts and scarves on “African Noel” and deliver a vibrant version of Sweet Honey in the Rock’s “Celebrate the Holydays,” along with newcomer to the mainstage Canela Vasquez. Vasquez, like fellow actor Isaiah Belt, has been involved with WBTT’s summer Stage of Discovery programs for students, and they demonstrate how that effort nurtures young talent. Charlie “CJ” Melton (who appears notably here as Santa Claus in one number), is another performer young in years, but already pretty well seasoned in experience, as he proves on “The Last Month of the Year” with Pitts, Myers and Gobourne.
Donovan Whitney has the occasionally rather thankless task of serving as narrator/emcee for the show, tossing in a little information and encouraging enthusiasm in the audience. Although the night I attended the show (its second preview), that audience was small, in general the attendees probably won’t need much encouragement.
Joyful! Joyful! continues through Dec. 30; for tickets, call (941) 366-1505 or visit westcoastblacktheatre.org.