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The state of black theater and black pain, a talk with director Nate Jacobs

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Nate Jacobs (Photo courtesy of West Coast Black Theater Troupe)

Nate Jacobs is the director of the West Coast Black Theater Troupe, a professional theater troupe founded in 1999 in Sarasota, Fl. The city  is known as the cultural home of Florida with ballet and opera companies.

Jacob’s saw the extreme lack of diversity in the theater scene and realized in order for diversity to happen it would be up to him. With that in mind he founded the West Coast Black Theatre Troupe to provide a platform of diversity in the arts and allow more of an opportunity for actors and dancers of color. Despite struggling for a while, the West Coast Theater Troupe went from nothing to owning a two-building complex and managing a $2 million budget. It is now considered one of the premier theater companies in Sarasota.

How does Black pain translate into good Black Theater?

Because journeys in life are similar when it comes to suffering and pain. The audience in Sarasota, for example, has a large Jewish population and these art patrons recognize the spirit and journey of the Black experience in this country.  When Black theater is done well it’s appreciated.

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A scene from SPUNK! (Photo courtesy of West Coast Black Theater Troupe)

 

West Coast Black Theatre Troupe just finished a run of Zora Neale Hurston’s play Spunk.  How was it received?

A lot of our theater patrons were not familiar with this play. Many were familiar with her books and other writings but not so much Spunk. Spunk is a play that shows us a part of the Black pain. The first act is called “Sweat” and it deals with an abusive husband and a wife who gets her revenge. Then there is a segment about street pimps and lastly the play ends with a love story. Our audience loved it.

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A scene from SPUNK! (Photo courtesy of West Coast Black Theater Troupe)

Are period pieces like Spunk and Porgy and Bess dated and should they be reinvented or should we start to disdain them because of their negative portrayal of Blacks and Black life? Why should we display negative aspects of Black culture to White audiences? Where is the value?

I think some of those stories are valid. When I did a piece on Burt Williams, the first Black actor on Broadway, I received criticism from some members of Sarasota’s Black community. Williams had to perform in Black face when he was acting because that was the way White actors portrayed Black roles on Broadway at the time. Some were upset that I would be performing in ‘blackface” and questioned my decision to put on this production. But people need to understand that the struggle and story of what Burt Williams went through is valid and his accomplishments should be celebrated. Because he opened doors for Blacks that had never been opened before; by gracing the stage he made folks realize that Black actors where just as talented as White actors and we could stand against anybody with our talent and probably supersede.

Are reality shows a new form of “black face”?  Are we being made to be the new “minstrel players” when it comes to reality TV?

When you talk about Black theater, the story was significant and important. It is a piece of the fabric of history that is being told to an audience.  When you talk about reality shows and the Black people on these shows we have to be careful. Unlike White themed shows which will celebrate a prostitute, when it comes to Black people showing the same behavior we begin to be labeled and derogatory imagery is seen as being indicative of the entire race.

Black people come in a plethora of colors and behaviors; some are poor and humble, while others have the money to do anything they want to do. You have to show these White producers our vast cultural diaspora or they will stereotype us in a minute.

What does modern ‘coonery’ look like in today’s entertainment?

Modern coonery does not offer anything challenging or thought-provoking. Many times it’s just making fun of cultures, bad habits and traits of a race of people but does not educate, enhance or uplift the society or these cultures and people.  We know you can visit certain Black communities and find negative images but you do not focus on these images as the sole representation of a people.

Should the n-word be banned from Black theater? Why should we continue to celebrate this painful word?

I don’t it should be totally banned, but I think we should be very strategic on how and where we use it when it comes to art. Because when a Black playwright sits down and writes a play and uses the word nigger, it becomes different. Sometimes it can be used as an affectionate tern.  It means brother, family and the fact that we have a history and culture together. When a White man puts it in his plays he has to be strategic also. In the art form of Black Theater it is us onstage it our history and life represented and the N-word is an apart of this fabric of American life. I think that many Black playwrights would feel shortchanged if they could not use it at all.  Take for example the plays of Auguste Wilson, the n-word is used, however in this case Wilson’s use is strategic and celebrates parts of his own Black culture.  The n-word is a cultural thing.

What would like to say to our readers about Black theater?

Black Theater is essential and if we don’t tell our stories nobody will; no one else is truly responsible for telling our stories.  It’s our job to propagate our history to generations to come and to celebrate our historians, artists, playwrights and their works.  If no one tells the stories of our role in the arts future generations of Black people will not know about it.