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19 Oct

Behind the Scenes: The Eve of Jackie featuring A special celebration for the Westcoast troupe

There’s always a little something different about the parties and galas thrown by the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe. There’s a palpable feeling of enthusiasm and energy in the room that starts when troupe members take the stage to celebrate the chance to perform and the people whose support has made it possible.

But even by those already high standards, the troupe achieved something even more exciting as it marked its 15th anniversary Monday night with a show and party at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall.

The 1,700-seat hall was nearly full of supporters, friends and fans of the troupe, quite an achievement for a company that was, for many years, constantly on the verge of fading away.

There was something special about seeing that large, racially diverse audience whooping and hollering together.

And they had good reason to cheer.

The evening was built around the performance of Chester Gregory in his essentially one-person show “The Eve of Jackie,” about the late R&B singer Jackie Wilson. (More on that in a moment.)

But it was more than just a show. The evening was a salute to the persistence of founder Nate Jacobs, who has led the troupe since its founding in 1999 and kept it going despite many obstacles that might have stopped a less-determined person. And it was a salute to Christine Jennings, who retired last month after five years as executive director. Jacobs had a vision, but Jennings brought the financial sensibility to make it feasible. She reformed the board, eliminated the debt, acquired a theater space and then raised the money to pay off the mortgage.

It was also a chance for the audience to once again show appreciation for what Jacobs’ creation has done — give a talented group of performers a chance to shine, as they have done year after year. The Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe created a platform for young African-American artists who didn’t have one before.

And the community is richer for it. Their growth and development has been astonishing at times. And it was in strong evidence Monday night, as three troupe veterans, Tsadok Porter, Leon Pitts II and Jacobs’ daughter, Naarai, played backup singers to Gregory’s show.

You would have thought they had been working with him for weeks or months (not the day or so they actually had after his arrival on Sunday). The vocals were smooth and beautifully performed, quickly adjusting to the way Gregory might hold a note, or pause a song to insert a story.

I’ve seen Gregory on Broadway in “Tarzan” and “Cry-Baby” and the national tour of “Dreamgirls” that featured Sarasota’s Syesha Mercado. He played a dynamic James “Thunder” Early, a fictional variation of James Brown.

He is, to say the least, full of energy and charisma, a gift that he uses perfectly in “The Eve of Jackie.”

I’m not all that familiar with Jackie Wilson, who was billed as “Mr. Excitement.” I can’t comment on how well Gregory performs in the Wilson style. But you don’t need to know Wilson to recognize Gregory is delivering the kind of performance that touches your soul as it leads to constant eruptions of applause.

Michael Mendez, center, with Charles Manning and Nate Jacobs, performs at the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe’s 15th anniversary celebration. Oct. 6, 2014. Correspondent Photo/Elaine Litherland
Michael Mendez, center, with Charles Manning and Nate Jacobs, performs at the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe’s 15th anniversary celebration. Oct. 6, 2014. Correspondent Photo/Elaine Litherland

He’s emotional, soulful and energizing. He also provides some inspiration for a few troupe members who hope to pursue professional singing or theater careers.

At the after party, several troupe members said they were awed by the performance. Michael Mendez, one of the troupe’s more charismatic performers, said he was watching Gregory closely to see things he might use in his own career.

Gregory might be emulating or conveying the style of Jackie Wilson, but he’s also creating his own path as a performer, which is the only emulating any artist needs to do.

But inspiring people — on stage and in the audience — is what the troupe has been doing for 15 years. I’m hoping that will continue for decades more.