WBTT Pays Tribute to the Queen of Soul



With Aretha Franklin’s passing on August 16, Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe knew that a tribute was in order. Franklin was, after all, the Queen of Soul—an icon that broke through musical and racial barriers to embed herself in the American culture. And with Salute to the Queen opening last night for a five-night limited production, the tribute arrived on time. Part musical revue, part biography, it had all the hits ("Respect," "A Natural Woman," "Think") and all the history, but who would play Franklin? Who could?

As a young singer, Naarai Jacobs’ vocal coach lived just down the hall—her father, Nate Jacobs. A performer himself, as well as founder and artistic director of Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, it seemed a wonderful, and convenient, fit. Naarai excelled. But one day, she remembers her father sitting her down for what would be a pivotal moment. “There’s only so much that I’m going to be able to teach you,” he said, “because I’m a man.” There remained a whole world of women’s vocal technique and presence for her to explore, he explained. “And you should start with Aretha Franklin.”

Naarai immersed herself in Franklin’s discography, watching old YouTube clips with Nate by her side, analyzing Franklin’s performance like a coach and the star quarterback watching game footage. He bought a box set of Aretha Franklin CDs; she uploaded them all onto her iPod for continued study. “Because I wanted to grow as a singer,” says Naarai today, “I made it a point to listen to her every single day after school.” The experience changed her life. “I call her the Vocal Bible,” she says. “Whitney made me want to sing, but Aretha taught me how.”

The lessons went beyond the music. “Just being a black person in America, you’re aware of the reverence we have for her,” says Naarai, but it was continued study of the music that revealed deeper reasons for that. Franklin’s freedom at the mic, to vamp and riff as the feeling took her, to wear her musical roots on her sleeve and in the recording studio was something wholly new to many listeners of the time. “That was too black, that was too church for pop music,” says Naarai. “And then you had someone like Ray Charles or Aretha Franklin come out and say, ‘I’m going to be whoever the hell I am, and you’re just going to accept it.’”

Still, with Franklin up on that “well-deserved” pedestal, Naarai has learned not to be nervous. She could never replace Franklin, and so won’t try to recreate her on stage. Rather, she looks to recapture the feeling that Franklin put into her performance, to harness that, work with it and pass it along to the audience. “I just have to be me, in the music,” she says. “I can’t wait to see people remembering this music.”

Salute to the Queen runs through September 15. Both Naarai Jacobs and Teresa Stanley—WBTT founding member turned Broadway star—will perform as Franklin, and narration will be provided by Nate Jacobs.

Pictured: Naarai Jacobs belts a tune. Photo courtesy of Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe.

« View The Wednesday Sep 12, 2018 SRQ Daily Edition
« Back To SRQ Daily Archive

Other Articles in Theater

Jul 2, 2019Phil Lederer

Lay it Down

Jul 1, 2019Phil Lederer

Summer Theater