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Sacramento Loses as Celebration Arts Goes Dark

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James Wheatley, front, and Chris Lamb co-starred in Athol Fugard's "The Train Driver."

UPDATE: One potential new home for Celebration Arts was the soon-to-be-former B Street Theatre site at 2711 B Street. The two-theater site is up for sale now that B Street Theatre is moving to its new performing arts complex on the corner of 27th and Capitol in Midtown. Wheatley had hoped to occupy the smaller stage (known as B3), but the sellers want the site to be sold as one piece, Wheatley was told. He continues to search for other potential locations.

When the curtain came down on “Detroit ’67” last Sunday afternoon, Sacramento lost its only community theater group dedicated to the African and African American experience. Celebration Arts, founded in 1986, is/was a highly regarded but under-appreciated multicultural performing arts organization unlike any other in the city.

James Wheatley, Celebration Arts founder and artistic director, told patrons that the company had lost the lease on its theater and workshop space because the neighboring business was going to expand. An optimist to the end, Wheatley called the closing “temporary” and said the search for a new home is underway. Because of the company’s finances, it has been difficult to locate a suitable site at an affordable price.

“Relocation is very challenging because it was not something we were planning to do,” he said. “There was no time for long-range planning and fundraising…[but] there was no question in our minds about the need to continue our work.”

Celebration Arts has operated for the past 23 years out of its East Sacramento location (4469 D St.), nurturing the talents of local African American (and other) actors and telling stories that celebrate black history and culture.

Celebration Arts presentations reflect the black experience, whether in the United States or elsewhere. Many original works as well as contemporary playwrights’ examinations of black-and-white relations have been presented by the company. The play which unwittingly closed the theater — “temporarily,” as Wheatley reminds — was a drama by Dominique Morrisseau about a black family’s squabble that erupts as the city of Detroit bursts into the Detroit riots of 1967.

James Baldwin’s first play, “The Amen Corner,” was recently given its second production at the theater. South African playwright Athol Fugard was a favorite among “classic” playwrights. Celebration Arts presented such Fugard plays as “Master Harold … and the boys,” “Boesman and Lena,” “Sizwe Bansi Is Dead,” “My Children! My Africa!” and “The Train Driver.”

Fugard was white, but his association with anti-apartheid activists and his work as a clerk in a Native Commissioners Court in Johannesburg made him very aware of the injustices of apartheid. His political plays put him in trouble with the national government — and some of them had to be printed and performed outside the country.

Perhaps Fugard’s best known play, which he admitted is “at least partly autobiographical” is “Master Harold … and the boys.” But the play Fugard seemed to give more weight to was one Wheatley co-starred with Chris Lamb in: “The Train Driver.”

In that drama, a train driver (Lamb), unintentionally kills a mother and child with his train. Distraught, he spends weeks searching through shanty towns for their identities until he encounters an old gravedigger (Wheatley) who helps the desperate man ease his conscience. Based on a true story, the drama is a powerful exploration of guilt, suffering, and the healing bonds that can grow between strangers.

“I think all of my writing life led up to the writing of ‘The Train Driver’ because it deals with my own inherited blindness and guilt and all of what being a white South African in South Africa during those apartheid years meant,” Fugard once said.

Such sentiments — struggles for human decency, equality and racial healing — represent the message, one way or another, of most of Celebration Arts’ productions.  This is why Wheatley is so intent upon keeping the endeavor going.

Photo courtesy Celebration Arts

About the author

Jim Carnes

Jim Carnes has masters degrees in English and journalism and is a former National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow in popular culture at Stanford University. He has covered Sacramento arts and entertainment for more than 20 years. He currently writes about and reviews theater, dance, music and events in the Sacramento area.

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