Local theater companies struggled mightily to survive in the upside-down year of 2020. Despite that struggle, many also poured energy into building new programming illuminating the Black experience. While Celebration Arts and Images Theatre Company continue among local leaders in that quest, others are actively joining the cause.
Celebration Arts’ James Wheatley: Leading the Way
When Celebration Arts founder James Wheatley came to Sacramento from Los Angeles in the mid-’70s, he saw a void in the local arts community and sought to fill it. He’s been a leader in championing Black history and culture through the arts ever since.
“African-Americans were not being admitted into dance programs in the schools, and if they got in, they were usually typecast as a spear carrier or something,” remembers Wheatley. His first step in those early years was to offer free dance classes in Oak Park. That led to Celebration Dance Company, which Wheatley started in 1976. Ten years later, the mission expanded when he founded Celebration Arts, which offers training and performance opportunities in theater, dance and music to underserved individuals of all ages, especially African-Americans. The goal, he says, is to “provide access and empower. We’re trying to open doors.”
As an actor/singer/dancer/choreographer/playwright/director (he directs most of Celebration Arts’ plays), Wheatley is perfectly cast in his role to lead this ambitious charge. And you can rest assured he’s not giving up now, COVID-19 be damned. While waiting to reopen, he’s making sure Celebration Arts maintains community connections any way it can, including livestreaming plays on Zoom.
Being forced into an online world is frustrating for all performing arts organizations. But for Celebration Arts—which started at a church, then lost the lease on its D Street location before finally landing in a plum spot at 2727 B St., former home of B Street Theatre, in January 2018—the loss of a home cuts especially deep. “It’s a point of pride for our community to have this building in midtown,” says Wheatley. “We want to keep the building, because if this thing [COVID] clears up it’s a place where we can do a lot more. It’s disconcerting for your audience when you have to move around.”
For now, Wheatley is taking it month by month and focusing on survival.
Locals can lend support by contributing to a GoFundMe campaign or offering a donation. For information: celebrationarts.net.
B Street Theatre’s Latrice Madkins: “It’s a marathon, not a sprint”
In July, as momentum for the Black Lives Matter movement continued to ratchet up across the nation, B Street Theatre announced Latrice Madkins as its equity, diversity and community inclusion director. Though one of the primary goals of that role is to amplify Black voices, “inclusion” is much more than that, notes Madkins.
“It’s not just a racial thing, but inclusion for LGBTQ and all marginalized groups,” she says. “It’s a full inclusionary approach.”
Madkins was a natural choice for the job. For five years prior, she’d built valuable community connections as administrator of B Street’s Fantasy Theatre (now known as School Tour), both with schools and with African-American-centered organizations such as Sacramento Chapter of the Links, Inc. “I was not just building relationships, but also diversifying the locations geographically in terms of which teachers and students B Street was serving,” says Madkins.
While COVID closures keep The Sofia/B Street’s doors at 2700 Capitol Ave. shuttered (for now), Madkins and the rest of the team are going full steam ahead, rolling out new diversity-based programming in the virtual space. One of the biggest and most visible is the “Re-Imagine” series, livestreamed weekly via Zoom with performances, interviews and other programming featuring Black artists and other people of color. B Street also hosted a virtual Juneteenth event, “Say It Loud,” highlighting the history of Black art and featuring poetry and readings.
Madkins notes she’s the only Black staff member—at least on the administrative side—in B Street’s 34-year history. “No one is used to coming to Latrice for artistic decisions,” she says. To that end, she established a diversity and inclusion advisory council within B Street. “The objective is to advise on strategies and practices,” she says. “Let’s just say I’m the chair of it, and all these people are on the council. That’s the kind of internal accomplishment that’s happened. The dynamics have shifted.”
Madkins says she’s “very honored” to have this new opportunity and recognizes the long road ahead. “This is a marathon, not a sprint,” she says, “and we want people to embrace it.”
Capital Stage: Making Change Happen
On the heels of George Floyd’s killing in late May, Capital Stage producing artistic director Michael Stevenson took a stand with an open letter, posted on the theater’s website. “We have failed,” he wrote. For things to change, he continued, “We will have to change. To take action. But first, to listen.”
CapStage is doing just that.
Diverse programming is nothing new for CapStage. Had it not been for COVID shutdowns, the week of Floyd’s death coincided with what would have been the closing week of “Pass Over,” a drama about two young Black men trying to escape their violent and impoverished neighborhood. But in keeping with their pledge to take action, Stevenson and the CapStage crew have stepped up to the plate, creating new programming focusing on people of color.
“Our first thought was ‘let’s give Black voices a space to talk about whatever they want to talk about,’” says Stevenson. That thought spawned the creation of “The Ghost Light Chronicles,” a virtual series featuring a changing array of local artists and hosted by African-American actor/director/teaching artist Atim Udoffia. “We usually have two guests, sometimes three, and Atim is able to have some really fascinating discussions,” says Stevenson. Featured guests have included director/actor/teacher Judith Moreland, actor Adrian Roberts and Celebration Arts’ James Wheatley. The series continues about once every six weeks, according to Stevenson, with no end date in sight. “This is something we should keep doing, no matter what,” he says.