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“Soul Men” closes out the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe’s “change is gonna come” season with all the style and pizzazz we have come to expect from productions at the little theater that could. Indeed change has come to WBTT, which has just opened its beautiful new education and outreach space and has plans underway to add additional seating and restrooms to the theater space. This has been a tremendous season, and I look forward to what is in store for the fall.
In the meantime, the latest revue features a rather flimsy premise but, for the most part, delivers with hit after hit performed by the fabulous five “soul men.” When the show begins, a new performer named Breezy Weezy (Derrick Gobourne, Jr.) who has a Fresh Prince of Bel Air vibe in gold lame and chains makes his debut on the show of DJ Diamond (Ariel Blue). Diamond finds his arrogance off-putting and decides to school him in the history of soul music so he gains an appreciation for the creative musicians who preceded him. She summons the stellar cast, including fan-favorite Michael Mendez and newcomer Sheldon Rhoden as well as Leon Pitts II, Henry Washington and Raleigh Mosley II.
Mendez has a graceful stage presence, an amazing falsetto, and has matured into a captivating leading man. Perhaps my favorite song of the night was his nuanced rendition of “Tracks of My Tears.” I have always loved that song, but Mendez’s soulful version made me really focus on the moving lyrics about the ways we all tend to play a role to hide our sadness. Another of the best performances of the night was “Change is Gonna Come” by Rhoden, which was incredibly moving. He received a rare mid-show standing ovation, which felt just right. During an emotionally charged month, which included among other events, the 50th year since Martin Luther King Jr.’s passing and the disturbing arrests of two African-American men at Starbuck’s waiting for a table, the audience seemed to rise with all the pent-up desire for long-awaited change.
In “Soul Men” the cast delved more deeply into the ways in which soul music, particularly during the civil rights era of the 1960s and early 1970s, captured the tenor of the time and the heartbreak of having to protest to gain what should be one’s birthright.
The Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe is a sensation in the Sarasota scene and this latest production is yet another “feel good” program which manages to educate at the same time. Check out westcoastblacktheatre.org for more information.