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A murder that shook a small Florida town. Westcoast Black Theatre debuts original musical, 'Ruby'

An actress, a Black woman in blue dress holds notebook. Behind her is a black and white photograph from the 1950's
The show is a musical retelling of the true story of a shocking killing of a white doctor in Live Oak, Fla., and the Black woman, Ruby McCollum, accused of his murder.

Prominent Black writer Zora Neale Hurston was the first person to report on the trial of Ruby McCollum outside of Florida. Her coverage led to national and international attention to the story.

The Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe in Sarasota has launched the most ambitious project in its 25-year history.

"Ruby" is an original musical based on the true story of a Black woman accused in 1952 of killing a prominent white man in Live Oak, Fla.

WUSF's Cathy Carter recently spoke with the theatre company's founder Nate Jacobs, who co-wrote the musical.

Nate, the story of Ruby McCollum is a complicated one. It's been covered in books and documentaries, and while there's no doubt that Ruby did shoot the doctor, the motive and the backstory behind the relationship is very compelling. What made you approach this show as a musical?

I think that's really my wheelhouse. And for some reason, I thought it'd be interesting to do a dramatic piece with music. My brother pretty much did most of the in-depth research of the story of Ruby McCollum. We were very fortunate because as it just so happened, a cousin of ours started a business where he buys up all the archival material of prominent Black newspapers across the nation, and the Pittsburgh Courier hired the prominent writer, Zora Neale Hurston, to go to Live Oak, Fla., where this crime happened to cover the trial of Ruby McCollum to make sure she got the story from Ruby McCollum's perspective, because it's 1952 in the cradle of the South. And so, we built our story of Ruby from the actual writings of Zora Neale Hurston because we had access to those writings. That makes our production very special because it's authentic material that came from the eyes and the pen of Zora Neale Hurston.

In a theater scene, an actor playing a White Doctor touches a Black woman who looks uncomfortable by the physical contact.
In1952, Ruby McCollum met Dr. Leroy Adams, a white physician and state senator-elect in Live Oak, FL. She later admitted to shooting him four times in the chest. McCollum testified the doctor repeatedly abused her and that her youngest child, was fathered by him

Well, congratulations. It's a huge achievement and really a passion project for you because this show has been in development for quite a few years, even before the COVID- 19 pandemic. 

You know, third time's the charm, Cathy. We spent all those years with development. But it is very clear to my creative team that this was the time for this show to grace the stage because it was ready. At our first workshop production we did, the show was three hours. We got it down to a two-hour evening. So, we just needed that time to develop a very complicated story with many, many layers. It’s a very exciting project and I'm very proud of it.

You should be. Nate, what are some of your biggest challenges in creating new work?

Getting the right people around the table. You know, I've been developing theater for over probably 25 years, mainly children’s theater. You know, I was a school teacher at a private school here for many years and they had no money and no department other than what I created. Then when I started the theatre company, we had no money to pay for rights to do other people's shows like the Broadway shows. But I always worked hard to present a quality and professional product with no money; shoestring budgets, always. This is our 25th year as a part of the cultural landscape of Sarasota and we're in a better position now. We have funding to fly guys in from New York to work with me and who have the skills. Now these shows can have legs and move from our theater to around the world.

In a theater seen actors, a White man wearing cowboy hat, speaks to Black woman wearing white dress.
At her second trial, Ruby's attorney had McCollum enter an insanity plea. She was then declared mentally incompetent to stand trial and was sent to Florida State Hospital.

Yes, that was my going to be my next question. Twenty-five years of blood, sweat and tears that you worked to build this company. And now you have this original music based on a really fascinating story. Do you think there's a possibility that this could go to other playhouses in other towns and other cities? 

That is my ultimate goal, to sit on Broadway and look at one of our original works on a Broadway stage. I would feel like - if my friends could see me now, you know? 

As a reporter, my goal is to tell a story that moves you in some way. To me, the best way to do that begins with listening. Talking to people about their lives and the issues they care about is my favorite part of the job.