Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Florida - West Coast

Black Nativity
Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe
Review by William S. Oser | Season Schedule

Also see Bill's recent review of Million Dollar Quartet


Tara Connor jones, Nate Jacobs, and Cast
Photo by Don Daly Photo.com
Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe (WBTT) presents what is becoming a bi-annual event, Langston Hughes' Black Nativity. I come from Boston where the show is a yearly event, originally produced by Miss Alma Lewis, of blessed memory, and taken over by National Center of Afro-American Artists. There it was a right of passage for multiple generations of families; young people would start in the children's choir, graduate to the adult choir, maybe grab a featured part, and by this time they might be bringing their own children. WBTT presented a new production of this classic in 2014, which is now being revived.

Langston Hughes developed the piece to allow each producing organization the opportunity to make it their own, and that is exactly what Artistic Director Nate Jacobs has done. This year he has imprinted his persona on the version in use. Many in this cast are new to Black Nativity and/or new to WBTT, while returning talent often are performing different solos than they did two years ago. It's all good—one of the glories of WBTT is and has been the enormously deep local talent pool, and the talent pool who may not quite be local but are knocking on WBTT's door in hopes of getting to work with the brilliant Mr. Jacobs, who again directs.

WBTT productions are rarely built as star vehicles, and Black Nativity is no exception. The ensemble, and everyone in it, are the stars. Tarra Conner jones repeats as the ArchAngel, which served as her debut with the company. She is as always a star presence, with a spectacular voice. Carmilla Harris, who debuted with the company last year in The Sam Cooke Story is Mary, and Jonathan Isaac, new to WBTT, is Joseph. Harris is very effecting in "You Are Wonderful" and Isaac solos a few minutes later with "My Way Is Cloudy." In the second act she assists him in "Christmas Means Love" in the church scene. Lynette White repeats her vignette as Elisabeth, an older woman who gives birth just before Mary does.

Stepping out of the ensemble to command center stage during the production are Alyssa White who solos on "Shame" and "Don't Save It All for Christmas Day"; Charlie "CJ" Melton (do the powers that be at WBTT really expect me to believe that he is only 14?) who commands the stage like the experienced pro he is with "Up Above My Head"; Aryam Jasmine Pitts (all of 9) with "Who Would Imagine a King" and assisting Nate Jacobs with "My Grown Up Christmas List." Xerron Xavier Mingo, new to WBTT, is featured as the Narrator and Pastor. Arnette German, Deidra Grace, Janiah Gregory, Eboni Lavender, Amber Myers, Erica Z. Pitts, and Sheldon Rhoden are also featured in the ensemble. The sensational dance ensemble includes Brian L. Boyd, Donal Frison, Derric Gobourne, Jr., Chakara Rosa (welcome to a regular production after several appearances in Alyssa White's showcases and other company events), Brentney Stephens, and Joshua Thompson.

James E. Dodge II leads the band from bass, with Todd Bellamy on piano, Jamar Camp on aux keys and Donald "Snoopy" Watts on drums, the hottest theater band playing for Sarasota theaters.

Nate Jacobs has directed this production to belong to the ensemble. Featured performers are always still part of the company. Scenic design by Michael Newton-Brown and costume design by Cristy Owen return from two years ago. Michael Paquini's lighting design is beautiful. Patrick Russini is the sound engineer, while company stalwarts Annette Breazeale as property master, Mydra McKinnon as wig designer, James E. Dodge II as music director and production manager, and Juanita Munford as production stage manager are in their usual places, doing brilliant work as always.

There are so many fantastic productions on area stages, how can someone with a limited schedule chose? Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe's Black Nativity should be one of the top choices and is a hot ticket with many performances already sold out.

Black Nativity, presented by Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, through December 23, 2016, at 1646 10th Way, Sarasota, Florida, 366-1505. For more information, visit www.wbttsrq.org.

Cast (in alphabetical order):
Brian L. Boyd: Dance Ensemble
Tarra Conner jones*: Angel
Donald Frison: Chief Priest/Wise Man
Arnette German: ensemble
Derric Gobourne, Jr.: Dance Ensemble/Wise Man
Deidra Grace: Ensemble
Janiah Gregory: Ensemble
Carmilla Harris: Mary
Jonathan Isaac: Joseph
Nate Jacobs*: Ensemble
Eboni Lavender: Ensemble
Charlie "CJ" Melton: ensemble
Xerron Xavier Mingo: Narrator/Pastor
Amber Myers: Ensemble
Aryam Pitts: Ensemble
Erica Z. Pitts: Ensemble
Sheldon Rhoden*: ensemble
Chakara Rosa: Dance Ensemble
Brentney Stephens: Dance Ensemble
Joshua Thompson: Dance Ensemble/Wise Man
Alyssa White: Ensemble
Lynette White: Elisabeth
*=Member of Actors' Equity Association

Band:
Music Director/Bass: James E. Dodge, II
Piano: Todd Bellamy
Aux. Keys: Jamar Camp
Drums: Donald "Snoopy" Watts

Directed by Nate Jacobs
Choreographed by Donald Frison
Scenic Design: Michael Newton-Brown
Costume Design: Cristy Owen
Lighting Design: Michael Pasquini
Sound Engineer: Patrick Russini
Property Master: Annette Breazeale
Wig Design: Mydra McKinnon
Production Manager: James E. Dodge, II
Production Stage Manager: Juanita Munford*


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