Dear Friends,

We are very grateful for your continued support of Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe and our mission, which is to produce professional theatre that promotes and celebrates the African American experience, to attract diverse audiences, to support and develop African American artists, and to build the self-esteem of African American youth.

Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe was created to honor the value of black lives, black culture and history. Our mission includes holding up and examining the worst experiences so they do not go unforgotten, and celebrating the successes and achievements to show what the human spirit can do even when faced with the formidable barriers of slavery, Jim Crow Laws, racism and decades of continuing discrimination. We — the Board of Trustees, leadership and staff of WBTT — want to see a world where every person has the same opportunities for fair and decent housing, education, health and safety; where every person is seen for the valuable human being that they are; each person is empowered to make their creative contributions to the world; and all receive equal protection from our legal and governmental systems.

For those who ask if we are angry about the murder of George Floyd by a law enforcement officer, oh yes, we are. For those who wish to know if we are frustrated by the steps forward followed by vast leaps backward in race relations in this country, we most certainly are. For those who wonder how we can bear to continue forth in the face of relentless discrimination and injustice, well, we respond that we do that by lighting our corner of the world with knowledge, kindness, passion and hope — hope for a better future. For black people. For all people.

In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “With patient and firm determination we will press on until every valley of despair is exalted to new peaks of hope, until every mountain of pride and irrationality is made low by the leveling process of humility and compassion; until the rough places of injustice are transformed into a smooth plane of equality of opportunity; and until the crooked places of prejudice are transformed by the straightening process of bright-eyed wisdom.”

We offer the following guest editorial by our Founder/Artistic Director, Nate Jacobs, which was published June 4 in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and on heraldtribune.com.

 


 

Still waiting for that change to come

By Nate Jacobs

When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said "A riot is the language of the unheard," he asked immediately after, "What is it that America has failed to hear?"

A few sentences later, Dr. King asserts that large segments of society in the U.S. were "more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.

"There are few figures who have left such an indelible imprint on the course of American history than Dr. King. His contributions and courage made a significant difference for blacks but, despite the legendary Sam Cooke's assertion through song that "A Change Is Gonna Come," I can tell you that it hasn't quite yet.

With the horrifying murder of George Floyd by a law enforcement officer in Minneapolis, we have seen protests across the country and around the world. "I can't breathe" has become the rallying cry for the civil unrest; those tragic words were among the last uttered by Mr. Floyd as the life left his body due to the officer's knee lodged on his neck for eight excruciating minutes.

It's yet another violent and unwarranted death at the hands of law enforcement in recent years. While I believe in my heart that the vast majority of police officers are good, honest, and devoted to the pledge they have made to uphold the law and protect their communities, I can also tell you that, as a black man in America, the fear of how I may be treated by the police is always top of mind.

I grew up in Daytona Beach. The first time I can recall being aware that America had a problem with black people was in middle school. Before then I had attended predominantly black schools but, in middle school, during the time of desegregation, I was bused into another district. I remember when the miniseries "Roots" came out and everyone was glued to their TV screens. The day after the first episode aired, there were fights breaking out all day long at school. I remember feeling angry. When the bell rang, my teacher said it was probably best if we ran to our buses to be driven back to our neighborhoods.

That was the day when I realized what it means to be "living while black" in America. I have had many reminders over the course of my lifetime. From being called the "n" word — many, many times; from hearing the popping of car locks when white people saw me walking down the street; to my job at Burdines, seeing the added watchfulness of sales clerks and security when people of color — especially men — entered the store. They watched me, too, although they denied it when I expressed my indignation.

My oldest brother had conversations with my siblings and me about what to do if you are confronted by the police. He made sure we understood what to do and how to act if you are stopped or pulled over.

Yes, I have been pulled over many times, with no cause. I have had guns pulled on me by police officers — even on the property of Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, the organization I founded and continue to lead. It's part of being black in America, something that is made worse by being a black man in America.

I have been stalked by police. You look in their faces, you know the whole routine. They are going to make sure you're not a criminal. As a black man in America, you are always a suspect. You are always "less than." And each encounter has the potential to turn deadly.

In the early days of WBTT, I was driving my daughter home to her mother's house in Bradenton from an evening performance at The Glenridge. We were pulled over and the officer asked who I was and why we were in that part (i.e., a white part) of town. For 45 minutes I was questioned, my van searched. I was humiliated, treated like a criminal, in front of my daughter. Finally, he let us go. This was not my only experience being pulled over for “driving while black."

This country has come a long way. You can see — in the workplace, in intermarriage statistics, in TV ads and shows featuring families of all colors — that we have progressed. But we have so much further to go. We need to continue reshaping the way people think. Each individual needs to consider how they can make a positive difference in the world. Every person needs to stand up for the rights of others, even when it costs them.

As Dr. King said, "True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.

"My hope in writing this is that all who read this will understand that even I, Nate Jacobs — an award-winning arts leader, a mentor, a well-loved and trusted member of the community — am anxious every time I see a police car pull up close. I worry I will be confronted when I am on WBTT's property, alone, late at night.

So in difficult times, how do I get through the day? I tend to be an optimistic person — I always see a brighter day coming. I have tried to create a platform of peace, hope, understanding and knowledge. With WBTT, I have worked to produce shows and events that evoke certain feelings and showcase the change I'd like to be a catalyst for. I am hopeful I can change our nation's broken dynamic by changing the people within my sphere.

Let's all be a beacon of light and hope. And change. Only when we do that, will black people in America be able to really breathe.

Nate Jacobs is the founder and artistic director of Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe.