Something to Celebrate

Celebration Arts Moves Into New Home

By Jessica Laskey
November 2018

Last year was one wild ride for James Wheatley, executive director of Celebration Arts, the 32-year-old arts organization that provides training and performance opportunities in drama, music, dance and storytelling devoted to the African-American experience.

Last year, Celebration Arts lost its lease at its home on D Street and scrambled to find new digs.

Yet as Wheatley jogs to meet me across the parking lot of his organization’s new home at 2727 B St., there’s no trace of stress in his sure, athletic poise or affable intensity.

“We’re here,” Wheatley says with a laugh as he settles back into a folding chair. “It’s been a challenge, but we’re determined to succeed.”

Wheatley’s grit has served him well, both as a performer and as the leader of the educational arts organization he founded in 1976. As a kid in Los Angeles, he was singing publicly by time the time he was 9. That led to solo gigs and, eventually, a graduate degree at USC’s Thornton School of Music. A professional dancer as well, Wheatley performed all over Southern California before making his way to Sacramento to take a job with the state.

Celebration Arts grew out of a need Wheatley identified early on to provide a local training ground for young African-American performers in the area.

“You have to understand, we’re not a community theater,” Wheatley says. “We’re a training organization. The performances are an extension of that training. But first and foremost, we’re here to help these young people develop critical thinking and analytical skills, and learn how to move. You’re not just reciting words. You’re making a story live. And in order to do that you have to be able to move and articulate your body. If you want to be good at anything, you have to put in the work mentally, physically and spiritually.”

Wheatley himself is exceptional onstage, but his face lights up most when he talks about teaching. One thing the unexpected move has provided is additional space for rehearsals and dance classes—a luxury the previous building didn’t have.

“If we wanted to have a class, we’d have to clear everything from the current show off the stage to make room,” says Wheatley, whose group started leasing the new space—which once housed B Street Theatre—on Jan. 1, following a somewhat frantic real estate hunt and “a lot of soul searching.” The new building effectively triples the company’s square footage, which comes with risk as well as potential reward.

“We have more seats, yes, but now we have to fill them,” Wheatley says with a wry smile. Right now, local government seems to be doubling down on arts support: Celebration Arts received a grant from the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission and another $25,000 for pop-up performances that take place all over the city. Still, it’s difficult for arts organizations to secure consistent audiences and stable income.

“We offer all kinds of incentives in our marketing to keep people coming back,” says Wheatley, who’s constantly searching for new plays from diverse voices. “All arts organizations have the same problem: People are spending their time doing really good work, but there still needs to be more publicity. People need to know that there’s great art to see here in Sacramento.”

For more information, go to celebrationarts.net.

Jessica Laskey can be reached at jessrlaskey@gmail.com.

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