Jubilee Theatre's latest production, Black Spurs, is a new musical that seeks to remind audiences that not all the cowboys who tamed the Wild West were as white as Roy Rogers and Gene Autry.
"I want people to know that our history is more diverse than they have been told," says Jubilee artistic director Tre Garrett, who guided the commissioning and development of this new musical, and who directed this premiere production. "[ Black Spurs] celebrates a way of life that helped shape the way we live today in this area."
Garrett indirectly arrived at the idea of using the great trail drives of the 1870s as a context for a new stage work when he took in a rodeo not long after moving here.
"Indirectly" because the first step in the process for newcomer Garrett was getting past what was happening to the "baby cows" at the rodeo.
"When I first arrived in Fort Worth, one of the things that I had the opportunity to do was go see the Cowboys of Color Rodeo. It took me a second to get over the baby cows thing. When they roped them around the neck, I was like, 'Oh, my god, what are they doing to the baby cows?'" said Garrett, a Houston-native who worked for Walt Disney Entertainment before taking the reins at Jubilee two years ago.
"But after I got over that, I realized that everybody was enjoying it," he continues. "People were having so much fun, and they were out as families, which really caught my attention. And I thought, 'How can we bottle this?' So we started looking for plays there were about black cowboys."
Garrett said he was surprised at how few works he found devoted to the contributions of black cowboys in the era we know as the Old West, despite the fact it has been estimated that almost a third of all cowboys riding the range during those times were either black or Hispanic.
So, more than a year ago, he set about the task of commissioning a new musical to give the black cowboy his due. After securing some additional financial support by earning a National Endowment for the Arts grant, Garrett brought on Houston-based playwright Celeste Bedford Walker to write the book and Los Angeles-based composer Ron Hasley to create the music.
"I'm a city girl. But, my parents were from the country and my dad was something of a black cowboy," says Walker, who has written a number of plays dealing with black history. "He worked on ranches and always wore cowboy boots and a cowboy hat. He would talk about riding bulls and bronco busting. So he was familiar with the cowboy life. He used to share it with us when we were growing up. We'd get tired of hearing [the stories]. So I can relate."
But Walker, who is serving as writer in residence at Jubilee, did not rely solely on her father's memories to help her get in touch with the cowboy's life.
"I did a lot of research. First, I had to just understand the mechanics of the cattle drive and the definitions of the words they used. I watched [Western] movies to get a sense of a cowboy's life on a cattle drive," said Walker. "And, out there on the trail, it was not so much about black and white. You were just an American crossing a vast land with 3,000 cattle. So it is a universal story."
Aiming for recognition
Garrett said the show, which features a cast of seven men and two women, tells the story of one particular cowboy, Sam Pete, who signs on to a cattle drive to raise enough money to save his family's home. Along with all the ridin', ropin' and brandin', there is also time for some action and romance.
"I really wanted it to be an adventure," says Garrett. "But there are really no bad guys in it. The bad guys are the weather and the elements -- the river crossings and the dust storms. Those are the only bad guys you will see."
Garrett also promises that Hasley's music for this family-friendly show will be free of danger, too.
"It is written in that very old Western style. The songs will feel very familiar to you."
Tackling a project such as this is ambitious, even for a theater with an impressive track record of new musicals. But Garrett sees this daunting undertaking as being part of a larger plan.
"National exposure for Jubilee is my biggest goal. This theater has been around for 32 years. We should be an example for the other African-American theaters, and all small theaters around the country, for what to do and how to do things," says Garrett, adding that other theater companies have already shown interest in producing Black Spurs. "This fits into that goal by creating a new work that's owned by Jubilee."