Harlem Renaissance comes to Sarasota

'Bubbling Brown Sugar' is next from Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe

mclear@bradenton.comApril 6, 2014 

From left, Earley Dean, Ariel Blue, Tsadok Porter and Horace Smith star in the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe's production of "Bubbling Brown Sugar." PUBLICITY PHOTO

PHOTOGRAPHER:DONALD J. DALY

Over the course of about 20 years, a Manhattan neighborhood changed American society and culture.

The era became known as the Harlem Renaissance, and it gave us the phenomenal literature, influential theater and some of the most vibrant music this country has ever produced.

"It was the era when African-Americans started to celebrate their culture, rather than thinking they were second-class," said Nate Jacobs.

Jacobs is the founding artistic director of the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe in Sarasota, which is staging "Bubbling Brown Sugar" beginning this week.

The show, which premiered in New York in 1976 and became a Broadway hit, revels in the music of that place and that time. The show, which has been referred to as a "collage of black music," features songs by Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Fats Waller, Eubie Blake, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Ethel Waters.

The show's songs -- there are about 30 in all -- include some originals, but mostly classics of the era: "Sweet Georgia Brown," "It Don't Mean A Thing" and "His Eye Is on the Sparrow" among them.

The show starts in the present day, when a young white couple ask some African-American show biz veterans what made Harlem so special. They travel back in time to the Harlem Renaissance and visit such legendary venues as the Cotton Club, the Savoy Ballroom and Small's Paradise.

"Back in those days, in the '20s and '30s, the white people would go up to Harlem to hear these musicians," Jacobs said. "The cream of New York society was the clientele at the Cotton Club."

It was an acclaimed play of its era, nominated for Tony Awards at a time when shows with mostly African-American casts were rare. But a lot of contemporary audiences aren't familiar with it.

"It's a piece that's very seldom done," Jacobs says, "mostly because it has a large cast and usually a large orchestra. We have a 14-member cast and a five-piece orchestra."

It's pared down compared to the Broadway staging, Jacobs said, but the WBTT production doesn't sacrifice any of the show's energy.

The show was conceived by Rosetta LeNoire, a long-time New York theater actor and activist. (Actors Equity Association has an award for diversity in casting that's named after her.) Although she's nearly legendary in theater circles, she became more widely known through her television sitcom roles in "Gimme a Break!," "Amen" and "Family Matters," in which she played the grandmother.

Although the concept came from LeNoire, Loften Mitchell is credited as the writer.

The WBTT production is directed by Harry Bryce, a company regular who most recently directed "It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues."

Details: "Bubbling Brown Sugar," April 9-May 11, Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe at 1646 10th Way, Sarasota. Tickets are $29.50. Call 941-366-1505 or go to www.wbttsrq.org.

Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.

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