Back with a brand-new aesthetic and a bustling 20th-anniversary lineup, Sarasota’s Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe is freshly renovated and ready to wow. The company’s Heart & Soul Campaign—a capital $8 million fundraising effort—paid for a revamped theater with multiple beautified spaces and permanent seats. Construction began on May 1 and was completed in December, just before the season kickoff.

“The renovation brings more patron comfortin terms of real seating, better sight lines, enlarged restrooms, and a larger and more beautiful lobby,” says Julie Leach, the Theatre’s executive director. “We can add more programming opportunities with the added black box stage, and we will have great rehearsal and cast areas to improve the comfort and working spaces of our artists.”  The renovation included turning the 1926 Binz warehouse building into an education and outreach center. It now houses a full floor of rehearsal and instructional studios, a floor for the weekday box office and administrational protocol, and a rooftop terrace that is available for event rental. The project also included a complete transformation of the 1970s warehouse building theater into the Gerri Aaron and the Aaron Family Foundation Theatre Building, which encompasses the 200-seat Donelly Family Theatre, the main-stage theater and the Howard J. Millman 50-seat black box theater.

“The renovation of the education and outreach building allowed us to expand our education programs, move onto one campus instead of renting office space elsewhere and invite the community in for a variety of programs and rentals,” Leach says. The main-stage seating increase of 40 extra seats allows more patrons to view the productions (the Theatre sold out its seating capacity early last season, leaving many potential ticket buyers unable to attend). Leach looks forward to accommodating more incomers and introducing the community to the Theatre’s offerings.

And this massive upgrade has been a long time coming, she says. The 20-year-old troupe spent its first 10 years as a vagabond traveling group. In 2010, the company found its current warehouse building as a rental but, unfortunately, it went into foreclosure shortly after that.

“We were able to purchase the warehouse and the Binz building for $450,000. Then we had a permanent home where our patrons could find us, we could sell subscriptions since we had permanent seating and we could expand our stage and education programs,” Leach says. “But renovating the space will really allow the Theatre to grow its programs and more fully accomplish its mission, which has always been to produce professional theater that promotes and celebrates the African American experience.”

The main-stage season in the new space began on January 8 and will run through July 12, rather than the usual season of October through April. The lineup starts with Caroline, or Change and continues with such shows as Your Arms Too Short to Box with God, Ruby (a Nate Jacobs original), and Flyin’ West. “We are celebrating women this season—women who face challenging circumstances, break through barriers and do so much to ‘carry’ families, society and cultures in all the meanings of that word,” says Nate Jacobs, the Theatre’s founder and artistic director. “Audiences will meet and be moved by memorable characters this season. I am especially excited to present the world premiere of a show that I wrote with my brother, Michael, called Ruby.” Jacobs is thrilled to pay tribute to the late playwright Vinnette Carroll, the first African American woman to direct a Broadway show, with the staging of Your Arms Too Short to Box with God. The Theatre’s education programs are also continuing, including the Jazzlinks initiative, which brings history to life for students in area high schools.

Jazzlinks is an integrated arts experience that illustrates the role of African Americans in United States history through music and theater. Actors visit classrooms, become the iconic figures in African American history and jazz, and share their stories. The actors discuss instances of discrimination they encountered in spite of their fame and respond (in character) to questions from the students. A culminating performance brings the full ensemble back to each school, and it features a vibrant show of music, dance and poetry.

This program was developed through a collaboration between the Theatre, the Jazz Club of Sarasota and Sarasota County Public Schools. Two curriculum specialists from the district prepared the content for 11th-grade students. The program connects three historical events with musical and dramatic illustrations, such as the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill, with a performance of “Strange Fruit,” the emotional song Billie Holiday made famous; the Harlem Renaissance with “Take the A Train,” which The Duke Ellington Orchestra immortalized; and the trial of the Scottsboro Boys with the spiritual “Oh Freedom!”

The Theatre even boasts a popular program for elementary students called Rhythm & Tales, in which educational lessons are learned through engaging fables like “The Supercilious Seed” and “The Alligators and the Flamingos.” The stories and songs teach young children about kindness, understanding, inclusion and how to do the right thing in school and in life.  As Leach says, “Our goal as a theater is to attract diverse audiences, to support and develop African American artists, and to build the self-esteem of African American youth.” SRQ


Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe: 1012 North Orange Ave., Sarasota, 941-366-1505,

The 20th-

Season Lineup


Caroline, or Change (book and lyrics by Tony Kushner; music by Jeanine Tesori) January 8–February 16. Set in 1963 in small-town Louisiana, this show follows the story of Caroline, an African American maid, and her employers, the Gellman family. The score weaves together blues, gospel and traditional Jewish klezmer music.


Your Arms Too Short to Box with God (book by Vinnette Carroll; music and lyrics by Alex Bradford and Micki Grant) February 26–April 5. Based on the Bible’s Book of Matthew, this musical follows Jesus Christ, his apostles and the women who inspired and followed him. From parables to miracles, and crucifixion to resurrection, it is a tale of love, betrayal and redemption told through a trove of rousing gospel music. The show celebrates the work of its creator, the late Carroll, who was the first African American woman to ever direct a Broadway show.


Ruby: A World Premiere New Musical (book and lyrics by Nate and Michael Jacobs; music and direction by Nate Jacobs, with collaborating composer/lyricist Darin Atwater) April 15–May 24. On August 3, 1952, a black woman murdered a white doctor in Live Oak, Florida—guaranteeing a conviction for the woman bold enough to commit such a shocking crime. It brought the celebrated writer Zora Neale Hurston to the town to cover the story for a Northern newspaper. This musical explores the secrets that are hidden just beneath the surface of the idyllic, genteel exterior of a quaint Florida town, and it evokes the themes of the modern-day #MeToo movement.


Flyin’ West (book by Pearl Cleage; directed by Chuck Smith) June 3–July 12. In the 1890s, the lives of a small group of African American women changed after they left the oppressive South and settled in the all-black town of Nicodemus, Kansas. Their hope and determination to survive in a harsh region were tested as they built new lives for themselves and their families. With flashes of humor as well as serious themes, the show sheds new light on a chapter of American history that is seldom told.