Celebration Arts' spirit call

How James Wheatley’s theater company fosters creativity to forge a community

In rehearsal for <i>Just in Time … For Christmas </i>(from left to right) Deon Taylor, T. Jackson, Shaquarrius Calloway (hidden), Carla Fleming, Gloria Wadud and Jannette McCoy.

In rehearsal for Just in Time … For Christmas (from left to right) Deon Taylor, T. Jackson, Shaquarrius Calloway (hidden), Carla Fleming, Gloria Wadud and Jannette McCoy.

photos by lisa baetz

James Wheatley, founder and artistic director of Celebration Arts, is giving an interview when a woman peeks in through the glass door that fronts the small, worn lobby of the company’s theater space. She asks if the arts organization is “new.”

Wheatley, a measured, graceful man who speaks in mellifluous tones, laughs. “We’ve only been in this location 22 years!”

Before the woman leaves she offers up that she’s a writer, prompting Wheatley to encourage her to submit something for one of the theater’s upcoming performance series.

That brief interaction reveals a lot, both about the somewhat below-the-radar way in which Celebration Arts operates and the spirit of inclusiveness with which it operates.

Celebration Arts is an all-volunteer, nonprofessional theater and arts organization. The company’s latest production, a holiday themed musical, Just in Time … For Christmas, runs through December 20.

Wheatley, whose youthful appearance belies the fact that he retired from working with the state of California more than a decade ago, has been dancing since he was 10 but realized “pretty early” that he didn’t want to pursue it for a living.

“I was around the people who did it, and they didn’t look healthy to me,” he says. “That didn’t appeal to me at all. It’s always been a hobby.”

A pretty all-consuming hobby. Wheatley trained in modern, contemporary dance in the Los Angeles area, and studied voice at the prestigious USC Thornton School of Music. In 1971 he moved to Sacramento for a job, commuting to Los Angeles on weekends to perform with a small dance company there as well as several singing ensembles. He followed that routine for seven years.

“Airfare was very cheap,” he says now with a laugh.

Along the way Wheatley started staging dramatic poetry readings that incorporated dance in Sacramento, found some kindred-spirit performers and formed the Celebration Dance Company in 1976. Ten years in, choral and drama were added.

Celebration Arts board member Peggi Wood says the goal was to “meet an unfulfilled need in the [African-American] community for multicultural, multidisciplinary arts.”

Decades later, Celebrations Arts has produced more than 141 plays, as well as numerous dance and music performances, all based upon the African-American experience.

Wheatley has kept to his dance roots; teaching an all-level dance class every Saturday at the Oak Park United Methodist Church.

“It’s not an easy class … you work, but if you don’t work you can’t improve.”

Elaine Douglas (left) gets in the moment while Celebration Arts founder and director James Wheatley watches.

That’s the same work ethic Wheatley brings to theater, including the six “ethnocentric” plays that the company produces each season. There’s also an ambitious plan to complete all 10 of August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle plays—so far, they’ve staged eight.

Still, Wheatley says, he views Celebration Arts as more of a “training organization” than a theater company.

“We bring people out of the community, many have little or no experience in the theater,” Wheatley says. “I’m just looking to see what kind of imagination they have, what do they do with what they are reading, how do they adapt to my suggestions.”

And, he adds, as he works with actors over time, it’s gratifying to see them evolve.

“[Theater] makes a change in a person’s self-concept. … you watch the growth.”

That spirit was on display during a rehearsal for Just in Time … For Christmas, a musical penned by Wheatley.

The theater space itself is very small, less than 50 seats, with a shallow stage with no side entrances only a few feet from the front row—close enough, as Wheatley says, to “see the beads of sweat or tears, it puts the responsibility on the actors to be in the moment.”

During rehearsal, the ensemble cast of 13 struggled with being in the moment, frequently calling “line” to Denise Taylor, a seven-year veteran of the company who is doing lighting and sound for this production. But spirits remained high as the run-through started with the opening song, which calls for an eight-part harmony.

Wheatley leaned on a piano and watched intently from the side of the stage, betraying no impatience with the frequent gaps in dialogue and false starts.

Cast member Dann Mead, who has several film credits to his name, including Unbelievers, a post-apocalyptic thriller currently in post-production, praises Wheatley’s thoroughness and patience.

“He takes a lot more time with everybody than other directors … he’s legendary,” Mead says. “A lot of people do come here for the experience and they aren’t looking for a career, but if you do well here, it matters.”

Mead serves as comic relief playing a deadpan, homeless man in the musical. The show is a reprise of sorts—Wheatley prefers that term to “sequel”—of last year’s Christmas production A New Song For Christmas.

The plot, as with last year, revolves around a choir practice and the various interruptions that ensue. One of the characters is a wayward young man, played by 13-year-old Malakai Husbands, who complicates things for his grandmother, a choir member, by running away three times in the course of the play.

Husbands, a slim, laconic youth with oversized black glasses, says that he’s not nervous despite this being his theater debut—he’s been performing since age 3 with his church choir. Indeed, the young actor projected a calm presence during a poignant rehearsal duet with Betty-Jayne Hare, who plays his grandmother. In a clear, high voice, he sang about his insecurities in the face of his sudden abandonment by his mother, who has dropped him off at his grandmother’s with a note.

The songs, all 19 of which were composed by Wheatley, are spare and serve mostly to advance the action—it’s not likely that audience members will be humming them post-production.

When composing, Wheatley says he starts with the lyrics then composes the tunes on a keyboard and uses a computer program to add orchestration and strings. As he elaborates on the creative process, Wheatley laughs. He could almost be referring to the entire, organic history of the multidisciplinary arts institution he’s created

“I never know what’s going to happen. Some people know before they start something what the climax or ending of the book or play will be,” Wheatley says. “I don’t know, but I’ll figure it out. We’ll get there.”