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The Black Cowboy Gets His Stage Musical – at Jubilee Theatre

Kicking up their boot heels: Black Spurs at Jubilee Theatre

Fort Worth’s Jubilee Theatre is premiering an original musical tonight. The African-American stage company won an NEA grant to develop the show, called Black Spurs. KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports it may be the first musical of its kind.

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When it comes to popular images of African-American cowboys, there certainly have been black sidekicks in movie and TV Westerns like Unforgiven and Lonesome Dove. Still, probably the best-known black cowboy leading man remains — Cleavon Little as Black Bart. And that’s in a Western spoof, Mel Brook’s Blazing Saddles. A spoof from 1974.

The tiny number of other major stage or screen treatments of black cowboys was what Jubilee Theatre artistic director Tre Garrett discovered – when he started researching them for a musical about a young man joining a cattle drive.

“I mean, there’s stories and plays about pioneers,” Garrett said, “but nowhere near any type of a full-length musical about the black cowboy experience.”

Garrett was inspired to create such a show soon after taking over Jubilee last year. In Fort Worth, he saw his first Cowboys of Color rodeo.

Garrett: “Families were out there, you know, it wasn’t just cowboys, it was cowboys and cowgirls, it was their wives, mothers. How do we bottle all that amazing energy we were seeing – and put that onstage so everyone can enjoy it?”

It certainly helped when the National Endowment for the Arts awarded Jubilee Theatre a $15,000 grant to support Garrett’s ambitious project. Obviously, Black Spurs draws on local history. Fort Worth, after all, is where cattle drives went up the Chisholm Trail to Abilene, Kansas. Jubilee is even next door to the Burke Burnett Building, named for the one-time owner, Samuel Burke Burnett. Before he switched to making money with oil, Burnett drove his father’s cattle on the Chisholm Trail. He was white; most cattle bosses were. But historians say that over their 20-year heyday, the cattle drives had some 8,000 African-Americans working on them.

But such local historic relevance can present a hurdle. Garrett laughs: “Telling a story about cowboys in Fort Worth is like doing Shakespeare in London. You have to try to get it right.”

So he turned to Houston author Celeste Bedford Walker, who is now Jubilee’s writer-in-residence. Walker has written a number of dramas about historic, black Texas figures and events. And it didn’t hurt that Walker’s own father had been a cowboy: “Sometimes he’d share his stories about being a cowhand,” she says, “so that’s how I did know a little something about working on a ranch.”

With Black Spurs, Walker and Garrett are not out to overturn history or re-write the classic Western. They’re just trying to insert African-Americans back into the story of the cattle drives. One of the best-known Texas cowboys, for example, was actually Nat Love, a freed slave. He’s known because he wrote a memoir about his life on the drives, how he met Bat Masterson and how he gained the nickname ‘Deadwood Dick.’

Mostly, Garrett said, “when we think about that time period, the 1800s, and we think about black people, we often think about slaves and victims, whereas in this situation you get to see heroes. And this is 1875, and these black men, they’re free and they’re out on the range and they’re sticking together and they’re working together – and that happened, you know?”

Jubilee veteran Robert Rouse leads the male performers singing in Black Spurs

In fact, Jubilee’s musical really is a straight-ahead, old-fashioned Western — which makes it a bit different from, say, the 1939 “race film,” The Bronze Buckaroo, which starred singing star Herb Jeffries  As a singing cowboy film, Buckaroo is a little outlandish: It features a fight over gold, plus a ranch hand using ventriloquism to fool people with a ‘talking mule.’ In Black Spurs, on the other hand, we have a young man, Sam Pete (Winston Daniels) who joins a cattle drive to earn money to – yes – save the family farm. Can’t get more classic and or more conventional. Although racism is mentioned, it’s not a major obstacle here. Simply surviving on the trail and getting the herd to Kansas are paramount.

“What I did,” Walker said, “was just tap into the old-fashioned Westerns that we already know, where certain things always happen, where you have the hero — it’s just that this time he’s an African-American.”

In a rehearsal at Jubilee, the performers are working on the musical numbers by LA composer and Broadway musical director Ron Hasley. Choreographer Quinton Jones walks the performers through their paces, as they stomp in unison in front of a giant, period map of the cattle drives snaking their way up through Texas and Oklahoma.

But there’s a sound here not often heard in dance rehearsals. It’s a metallic, rattly noise.

These cowboys are dancing with real spurs on their boots.