Fifteen years ago, when Nate Jacobs was just getting his Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe going in Sarasota, he got a call from one of his mentors.
"He called and asked me 'What is the purpose of a black theater company?' " Jacobs recalled. "I gave him several answers that I had been thinking about and he said, 'All of that's correct, but that's not what I was looking for.' "
That mentor was Larry Leon Hamlin. Hamlin, who died in 2007, was the founder of the North Carolina Black Repertory Company and the National Black Theatre Festival.
In early August, Jacobs will travel to the festival, which is held every two years in Winston-Salem, N.C., and attracts thousands of theater professionals from all over the world. Jacobs will receive the Larry Leon Hamlin Producer Award for his contributions to black theater.
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There was buzz, a few years back, about America becoming a "post-racial" society, one where race doesn't much matter. The recent racially motivated mass murder in Charleston, S.C., and its accompanying manifesto prove we're a long way from that.
But still, Jacobs has wondered himself why we need black theater companies. He had answers that seemed adequate, but then Hamlin gave him the answer that coalesced his vision.
"He told me that we had to be a steward for the heritage," Jacobs said. "We had to celebrate the history and the culture of black theater."
That vision, Jacobs said, helped him build WBTT into one of the most significant black theater companies in the country, and one of only a handful that owns its own theater.
The theater has made a difference in the cultural health of the Bradenton-Sarasota area. Jacobs can see it better than anybody. In one way, the impact is obvious. Audiences of all races now have a place where they can regularly see works by such writers as Lorraine Hansberry and August
Wilson, who would only occasionally be featured by other professional companies, as well as revues that revel in the rich history of black music in America.
Other benefits of having a black theater in the area are less apparent, but just as tangible.
Before he started WBTT, Jacobs was working as an actor in this area. He was one of the very few professional black actors around here, and still roles were scarce. When they came, they were usually small roles. He'd be a servant who would be on stage for a couple of minutes, seldom anything meatier.
"I was grateful for the parts, don't get me wrong," he said. "We all know that in theater that there are no unimportant roles. But sometimes I wanted to be on stage a little longer."
It's a problem that's not unique to this area. Where there are few black actors, companies are hesitant to do plays that call for black casts. And because there are few roles for them, black actors leave the area to seek work elsewhere.
Now, Jacobs said, black actors, and other performers of color, have quality roles that they can at least strive for throughout the theater season in the area.
That encourages actors to come here and stay here, and it encourages other companies in the Bradenton-Sarasota area to stage plays and musicals with more black characters. It enhances the quality of every production in every theater, because there are more well-trained, experienced actors here.
Jacobs has seen the difference. In recent years, he said, there are more plays with substantial black characters, and there are more black actors being cast in roles in which race is irrelevant.
"In the past three years, it has been amazing," he said. "In advertisements for shows from Venice to Bradenton, and here in Sarasota, you are seeing more actors of color than ever before."
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.