SARASOTA, FL – The Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe (WBTT) announces its 2016 WBTT Voices program, which is presented in honor of Black History Month. There are two events scheduled in February: on February 8, the topic is “Meet the Florida Highwaymen Artists”; on February 14, two professionals will offer “Personal Reflections of August Wilson.”
On February 8, 6-9pm, the program will focus on the Florida Highwaymen, a group of 26 African-American artists who – from the early 1950s through the ‘80s – painted beautiful landscapes of the then-undeveloped, serene Florida landscape. The 26 artists, who started out by selling their paintings door-to-door to businesses and individuals throughout Florida because gallery owners in the segregated South wouldn’t show their work, were inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame in 2004.
The evening will include a reception to meet artists and view artwork (which will be available for purchase), and then a panel discussion with the artists and longtime collector Larry Helmuth; moderator will be Eleanor Merritt Darlington. There will also be a painting demonstration by Highwayman Al Black.
“Most people who live here now are not natives of Florida – they didn’t live here in 50s, 60s or early ’70s. Florida was a very different place then for African Americans, it was very much the Deep South. It was very segregated,” said Helmuth, an Osprey resident who has assembled a large collection of works by the Highwaymen. “This style of painting by the Highwaymen was not begun as a way of expressing themselves artistically. It was a way to survive, a way to eat.”
Helmuth noted that he appreciates not only the art but also the entrepreneurship of the Highwaymen, who began humbly but became successful over time.
“I feel there are strong parallels between the Highwaymen and the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe’s early days. Just as there were no opportunities for the Highwaymen to sell their art in galleries in the beginning, there were few outlets for artists of color in Sarasota – until WBTT created one for them,” said WBTT founder and artistic director Nate Jacobs. “It is nice to see the Highwaymen receiving some well-deserved attention and enjoying long-overdue success.”
On February 14, 6-7pm, two professionals will share their personal experiences with August Wilson: Dr. Chris Rawson, Pittsburgh Post Gazatte theater critic, University of Pittsburgh professor, and co-author of August Wilson: Pittsburgh Places in His Life and Plays, and Chuck Smith, director of WBTT’s current production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, who worked with Wilson on the same play at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre. Moderator will be Jay Handelman, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune’s theater critic.
August Wilson was most well-known for “The Pittsburgh Cycle, a series of 10 plays for which he received two Pulitzer Prizes for Drama. Each is set in a different decade of the 20th century, depicting the comedy and the tragedy of the African-American experience during that particular decade. This chronicle stands as a landmark in the history of black culture, of American literature, and of Broadway theater. WBTT has produced four of Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle” plays: The Piano Lesson, Fences, Jitney and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.
The “WBTT Voices” program was launched in 2014; all programs have been at full capacity.
Executive director Julie Leach is looking forward to this year’s “Voices” offerings. “Black History Month provides the perfect platform to examine the people and issues that have shaped the African American experience in our country,” she said. “While the ‘Voices’ program enables us to have meaningful discussions about issues specifically related to African-American culture and history, these discussions also touch on universal topics that speak to all people. We hope members of the community will attend and join in.”
Both programs take place at the WBTT Theatre (1646 Nate Jacobs Way, Sarasota). Free and open to the public but space is limited; RSVP by calling (941) 366-1505.
About Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe:
The Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe of Florida, Inc. is the only professional black theater company on Florida’s West Coast. The mission is to produce plays that promote and celebrate the African-American experience, attract diverse audiences, while using its productions as a vehicle for supporting African-American artists and building the self-esteem of African-American youth. For more information on WBTT, visit the website at westcoastblacktheatre.org or call (941) 366-1505.