Arts & Culture

Sarasota native Earley Dean has become a theater favorite

Earley Dean starred in the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe’s 2015 production of “Cotton Club Cabaret.”
Earley Dean starred in the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe’s 2015 production of “Cotton Club Cabaret.” PUBLICITY PHOTO

When he was a young man, just getting ready to quit college and start off on his professional career as an actor, Earley Dean had a talk with one of his theater teachers at Florida A&M University.

The teacher was encouraging, but had a warning.

“He told me if I didn’t have a passion for what I did, I wouldn’t succeed,” Dean recalled. “I didn’t understand what that meant, to have that passion. I thought I did. I thought I had passion. It wasn’t until I got in the real world, until I got fired from a couple of shows, until I started learning from people who really had that passion to hone their craft, that I understood what it meant. It took a while for me to truly develop that passion.”

It was just about 15 years ago that Dean had that talk with his teacher. He’s nurtured that passion ever since, and now, in his mid-30s, he’s enjoying acting even more than he did when he was just starting out.

Sarasota theater-goers know Dean’s work well. He was born and raised here, and got his early performance experience singing with groups from his church and his school.

In recent years, Dean has been one of the most frequent inhabitants of the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe’s stage. He’s currently appearing there in “Dearly Departed,” which runs through May 27. Other recent roles have included Boy Willie in “The Piano Lesson,” Orin Scrivello in “Little Shop of Horrors” and the title role in “Purlie.”

His first performance experiences were in music, but he moved into acting when Nate Jacobs and others started a theater program at the Westcoast Center For Human Development in Sarasota, where Dean attended high school. Almost immediately he realized he loved acting.

“That’s where I got bit by the bug,” he said.

Jacobs later founded the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe and Dean’s sister, Jnanna Cooper, acted with the company at the very beginning. So it was an easy transition for him to start doing shows there.

His school and church musical groups had toured the country, and with his high school theater group he had performed all around Sarasota. So by the time he went pro, after two years of studying theater at FAMU, Dean already had a lot of experience.

Even though he came into theater through music and he’s done a lot of musical theater at WBTT and elsewhere, it’s drama that appeals to him most.

He counts that recent turn as Boy Willie in WBTT’s “The Piano Lesson,” an intense and sometimes harsh drama by August Wilson, as perhaps his favorite role. The play deals with the importance of history in the lives of contemporary African-American men and women.

“After the show, in the greeting line in the lobby, a woman, she was a woman of European descent, came up to me with tears in her eyes,” Dean said. “She said that was the first time she had understood the struggle that our people, people of Moorish descent, are still experiencing.”

But it’s just as rewarding, he said, when people see him after a show, or recognize him on the street, and thank him for a lighthearted comedy such as “Dearly Departed” that helped them forget their troubles for a couple of hours.

“That’s the value, that’s the importance, of what we as performers can do,” he said.

Dean has lived in Seattle for the past six years, but he has worked at WBTT steadily. “Dearly Departed” is his last role with the company for a while.

“My life has been on the road for the past four years,” he said. “I’m ready to settle down. I won’t be doing anything (at WBTT) next season for sure. Maybe I’ll be doing something here the season after that.”

He’s been pursuing movie and TV roles in Seattle, with some preliminary success in commercials and student films. On-camera work is what he’s most interested in right now. But he said he’ll be back at WBTT before too long. The theater, he said, is an essential institution for the Sarasota community, and it will always be special to him.

“The Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe is a wonderful place for aspiring performers who are of Moorish descent,” he said. “You can learn, you can hone your skills before presenting yourself to the world. It’s a beautiful platform for the inner-city community.”

Marty Clear: 941-708-7919, @martinclear