Nate Jacobs recalls when he first experienced the theater scene in the Bradenton-Sarasota area.
No matter which theater he went to, almost every person in the audience was white, and every actor on every stage was white.
"When I first came to this area, in the mid-'80s, I was struck by how there was a separation of the black population and the white population, across the whole community," Jacobs said. "Black people weren't supposed to go to downtown Sarasota. Black people weren't supposed to go to the Asolo."
It wasn't anything that anybody said outright. It was just a sense that people had, ingrained over generations.
He went to a play the Players Theatre in Sarasota, in which an African-American woman had been cast as the wife of a white man. A large segment of the audience was outraged, he said.
Jacobs decided to do something about it. In 1999, he founded the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe. He's still the company's artistic director.
Since this is Martin Luther King Day weekend, it seems like a good time to look at how far we've come in bringing diversity to local theater.
By Jacobs' reckoning, we've come far, but not yet far enough.
When WBTT started, Jacobs staged his shows at other theaters, on Sunday and Monday nights when the home theater was taking the evening off. Everyone told him he was nuts.
"They said, 'you can't do this, you won't get two people showing up,' " Jacobs said.
People did show up, though, and eventually WBTT extended its runs and moved into its own theater.
It turned out that all those people who insisted there was no audience for African-American theater had never actually tried to produce it. They just as
sumed there was no black talent, and no black auidence, and that no white people would come to see plays with black actors.
But audiences for the shows at WBTT are racially mixed, even though the shows generally center on African-American characters. And the shows sell out. WBTT is considering extending the run of its current show, the drama "The Whipping Man," to accommodate demand. Its next show, "Harry and Lena," doesn't start for several weeks, but 98 percent of the tickets have already been sold.
There was more of a problem attracting black performers than white audiences. African-Americans in this area hadn't grown up going to theater and didn't pursue it as a career or an avocation.
But the area now has a "tremendous amount" of African-American theater talent, he said, and more and more young people are coming to WBTT for training.
Some other companies aren't necessarily seeing the effect transfer from WBTT. Manatee Players was one of the companies that co-produced shows with WBTT before WBTT had its own theater. Producing artistic director Rick Kerby said Manatee Players audiences completely accept shows with a lot of minority actors."The first few times I put those shows, I just crossed my fingers and everything else I had," Kerby said. "But our audiences accept it completely. We'd get 80 percent of the talent we needed and then we'd go out into the churches, or we ask our cast members to bring in their friends. We had to recruited as much as we auditioned."
Jeffery Kin, the artistic director of the Players Theatre, said he never hesitates to cast black actors for traditionally white roles, and not a single person in his audience these days objects.
Kin said he cut his theater teeth in New York City at a time when non-traditional casting was becoming a point of emphasis. He'd like to cast more African-Americans at the Players Theatre, but since it's a community theater and doesn't pay its actors there's only so much he can do.
"We don't want to do a show exactly as it was done on Broadway," he said. "We want to put our own spin on it and make it our own. Everyone who grew up in the place and era I did loves non-traditional casting. But we're at the mercy of who comes and knocks on our door."
There are few African-American actors willing to work for free who come to audition for his show, Kin, said, so he can't cast a lot of African-American actors.
But area theaters, whether they're community companies with volunteer actors or professional companies that pay, are eager to attract black actors and black audiences. But some are finding it more challenging than they'd like.
"Theaters are always looking to broaden our audiences," he said, "because that's how we extend our reach."
Kerby said the Manatee Players audience is predominantly white, and aging. His company is looking for way to expand its demographics, so its audience will be more ethnically rich and more generationally diverse. That's one reason Kerby tries to schedule a season with classic musicals mixed in with newer, edgier shows.
"I would love to see a more diverse audience," he said. "It's not just a matter of black and white. We need to find younger audience members, ethnically diverse or otherwise."
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.