WBTT's Long-Delayed World Premiere Musical 'Ruby' Takes the Stage

The show tells a complicated true story of a murder that shook one small Florida town 70 years ago.

By Kay Kipling March 5, 2024

Catara Brae in the title role in WBTT's "Ruby."

Most theatergoers only see a musical production once it’s already been successful. That makes it easy to forget how big an undertaking it is to create a brand-new piece of musical theater, pulling together perhaps more than 20 songs with a compelling book and bringing unfamiliar characters to life. That’s been the challenge for Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe’s Ruby, now onstage.

The birthing of this world premiere musical, by WBTT artistic director Nate Jacobs and his brother, Michael, has been more fraught than most. Its debut was originally planned several years ago but delayed by the Covid pandemic its first time around. Further complications from Covid also delayed a second try.

That long delay, however, has also meant that the show’s creators have had time to extensively revise the original piece, which is based on the true story of a Black woman, Ruby McCollum, who killed a white doctor in 1952 Live Oak, Florida. Working with dramaturg Susan Haedicke and musicians Brennan Stylez, Antonio Wimberly and Nehemiah Luckett, the Jacobs brothers found a different entry point into the story, through the newspaper coverage of Ruby’s trial by famed Black writer Zora Neale Hurston.

That story is a fascinating, if complicated one. (So complicated, in fact, that Haedicke and WBTT went to the labor of producing a background pamphlet audiences can pick up and read before seeing the show. It’s a welcome aid.) While there was never any doubt that Ruby did shoot the white doctor, the motive, and the back story of their relationship, along with their connections to Ruby’s husband Sam and his business, are murkier.

Ashley Elizabeth Crowe as Zora Neale Hurston in "Ruby."

It's a lot to pack into a musical, and Ruby sometimes suffers from trying to do too much. Besides Ruby’s personal story, we are also learning about relations in general between whites and Blacks in the segregated South at that time, about Hurston’s work and her own often troubled life, and even a little about the bolita business, a shady gambling enterprise the McCollums ran to great success.

Much of this information is packed into the songs, keeping the spoken dialogue to a minimum for the most part. And some of those songs hit their mark, whether it’s the outrage of “$116” or “Thirty-Eight Times” (related first to a disputed medical bill and second to the trial judge’s refusals to let Ruby speak), the cynicism of “Good Thing Going,” or the heartbreak of two Ruby solos, “Breathe” and “Alone.”

There are some strong performers (directed by Nate Jacobs) in the WBTT cast, too. Newcomer Catara Brae has an engaging presence as Ruby, occasionally backed by Sieglinda Fox as her helper, Olivia; Ashley Elizabeth Crowe makes a convincing Hurston, although she’s faced with the sometimes thankless task of filling in narrative in a tell-rather-than-show mode. Maurice Alpharicio makes an impression as Sam, but he’s not given much to do other than seduce a young Ruby.

The white characters—the doctor, the trial judge, a sheriff, etc.—remain pretty one-dimensional; and the ensemble, while putting their all into the show’s livelier production numbers (choreographed by Donald Frison), never really stand out as individuals, despite the names they’re given in the playbill.

Music director Dan Sander-Wells and his band do yeoman’s work backstage, delivering more than 40 musical compositions with verve. And Austin Jacobs’ projection designs help to transport us to the time and place, beyond Jeffrey Weber’s basic scenic design.

While there are, even after all the time and effort that have gone into the show, problems with Ruby, it’s an accomplishment to keep Ruby’s story alive after 70 years—especially considering that most of us would never have known it at all otherwise. Ruby continues through April 7; for tickets, call (941) 366-1505 or visit

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