Culture and connection — Juneteenth production celebrates modern and traditional African American performance

With division seemingly on the rise in Orange County, Debora Wondercheck said she wanted to bring Orange County community members together through celebration and performance – the result is Sunday’s Gospel Voices of Orange County, honoring Juneteenth.

While it’s a commemoration of the emancipation of enslaved Black people, Juneteenth is also a celebration of Black culture and traditions. And so is the production Wondercheck has helped organize.

  • Members of the Impact Dance Ensemble practice their dance during...

    Members of the Impact Dance Ensemble practice their dance during rehearsals for the first-ever Gospel Voices of OC, a multi-cultural arts celebration on June 19 (Juneteenth) at Chapman’s Musco Center of the Arts on Friday, June 17, 2022 in Orange CA.
    (Photo by Michael Goulding, Contributing Photographer)

  • Narrator Logan Johnson practices his lines in front of projection...

    Narrator Logan Johnson practices his lines in front of projection of a person in chains during rehearsals for the first-ever Gospel Voices of OC, a multi-cultural arts celebration on June 19 (Juneteenth) at Chapman’s Musco Center of the Arts on Friday, June 17, 2022 in Orange CA. (Photo by Michael Goulding, Contributing Photographer)

  • Large ribbons of cloth representing the ocean are brought on...

    Large ribbons of cloth representing the ocean are brought on stage during rehearsals for the first-ever Gospel Voices of OC, a multi-cultural arts celebration on June 19 (Juneteenth) at Chapman’s Musco Center of the Arts on Friday, June 17, 2022 in Orange CA.
    (Photo by Michael Goulding, Contributing Photographer)

  • Members of the Impact Dance Ensemble practice their dance during...

    Members of the Impact Dance Ensemble practice their dance during rehearsals for the first-ever Gospel Voices of OC, a multi-cultural arts celebration on June 19 (Juneteenth) at Chapman’s Musco Center of the Arts on Friday, June 17, 2022 in Orange CA.
    (Photo by Michael Goulding, Contributing Photographer)

  • Soloist James Shelby performs during rehearsals for the first-ever Gospel...

    Soloist James Shelby performs during rehearsals for the first-ever Gospel Voices of OC, a multi-cultural arts celebration on June 19 (Juneteenth) at Chapman’s Musco Center of the Arts on Friday, June 17, 2022 in Orange CA. (Photo by Michael Goulding, Contributing Photographer)

  • Sheryl Imani Harris goes through her steps during rehearsals for...

    Sheryl Imani Harris goes through her steps during rehearsals for the first-ever Gospel Voices of OC, a multi-cultural arts celebration on June 19 (Juneteenth) at Chapman’s Musco Center of the Arts on Friday, June 17, 2022 in Orange CA.
    (Photo by Michael Goulding, Contributing Photographer)

  • Members of the adult choir perform during rehearsals for the...

    Members of the adult choir perform during rehearsals for the first-ever Gospel Voices of OC, a multi-cultural arts celebration on June 19 (Juneteenth) at Chapman’s Musco Center of the Arts on Friday, June 17, 2022 in Orange CA. (Photo by Michael Goulding, Contributing Photographer)

  • Members of the Impact Dance Ensemble practice their dance during...

    Members of the Impact Dance Ensemble practice their dance during rehearsals for the first-ever Gospel Voices of OC, a multi-cultural arts celebration on June 19 (Juneteenth) at Chapman’s Musco Center of the Arts on Friday, June 17, 2022 in Orange CA.
    (Photo by Michael Goulding, Contributing Photographer)

  • Soloist James Shelby performs during rehearsals for the first-ever Gospel...

    Soloist James Shelby performs during rehearsals for the first-ever Gospel Voices of OC, a multi-cultural arts celebration on June 19 (Juneteenth) at Chapman’s Musco Center of the Arts on Friday, June 17, 2022 in Orange CA. (Photo by Michael Goulding, Contributing Photographer)

  • Members of the youth choir perform “Oh Happy Day” during...

    Members of the youth choir perform “Oh Happy Day” during rehearsals for the first-ever Gospel Voices of OC, a multi-cultural arts celebration on June 19 (Juneteenth) at Chapman’s Chapman’s Musco Center of the Arts on Friday, June 17, 2022 in Orange CA.
    (Photo by Michael Goulding, Contributing Photographer)

  • Members of the Impact Dance Ensemble practice their dance during...

    Members of the Impact Dance Ensemble practice their dance during rehearsals for the first-ever Gospel Voices of OC, a multi-cultural arts celebration on June 19 (Juneteenth) at Chapman’s Musco Center of the Arts on Friday, June 17, 2022 in Orange CA.
    (Photo by Michael Goulding, Contributing Photographer)

  • Tap dancer, Bakari Anderson gets airborne during rehearsals for the...

    Tap dancer, Bakari Anderson gets airborne during rehearsals for the first-ever Gospel Voices of OC, a multi-cultural arts celebration on June 19 (Juneteenth) at Chapman’s Musco Center of the Arts on Friday, June 17, 2022 in Orange CA.
    (Photo by Michael Goulding, Contributing Photographer)

  • A member of the Impact Dance Ensemble shares the stage...

    A member of the Impact Dance Ensemble shares the stage with material representing the ocean during rehearsals for the first-ever Gospel Voices of OC, a multi-cultural arts celebration on June 19 (Juneteenth) at Chapman’s Musco Center of the Arts on Friday, June 17, 2022 in Orange CA. (Photo by Michael Goulding, Contributing Photographer)

Gospel Voices of Orange County is an artistic commemoration of historic and contemporary African American music, instrumentals and dance featuring more than 100 performers from Orange County and beyond at the Musco Center of Arts at Chapman University. The event will showcase traditional spirituals – music sung by African Americans during slavery – a string orchestra, choir, jazz band and original choreography.

“I just thought it’s time that we have something where we can come together to celebrate each other and to be allies, to say ‘We’re here for one another,’ as opposed to what’s been pulling our nation apart,” Wondercheck said.

The show has been a way to create community, she added, and “eradicate this nonsense.”

Wondercheck said she hopes those who may not be familiar with African American history and culture learn about the significance of gospel.

“We called it Gospel Voices (of OC) because the church for African Americans, especially for our ancestors, was the only place we had a voice,” she said.

She also wants to give people a “deeper understanding of how expansive and brilliant the African American culture is,” she added, combating the idea that “it’s just one-sided or that we do just one thing.”

The production features classical church and hip-hop music, as well as tap, contemporary and African dance. Sonya Griffin, Karen Allen Reed and Darlene Futro – well-known in Orange County Black churches for “solid gospel music,” Wondercheck said –  have collaborated to direct the choir. Lisa Terry, leading the orchestra, worked with Lanny Hartley to arrange the music in alignment with the dancers and choir singers.

As president and CEO of the Arts and Learning Conservatory –  an OC organization providing opportunities in the arts for more than 1,000 children every year –  Wondercheck has also involved several youth in the production, giving them the opportunity to perform alongside adults and professionals.

Imani Harris, the show’s choreographer, said she has merged the dance genres with a “new generation” twist. She’s paid close attention to the spoken word narration accompanying the performance’s storytelling and choreography, she added.

“It was very important that I understood, ‘What are we trying to say in this dance? What are we trying to represent?’” she said. “So then when it came time to choreograph, I’m coming from your heart, from your experience, not just this independent situation.”

That message, Harris said, conveys African American history through the medium of dance.

“You hear the singers, you hear the musicians, but you see the dancers, the expression and the struggle,” she said.

Through these mediums of expression, Wondercheck ultimately said she hopes people “feel like they’re part of the family,” and included in the celebration.

“In our culture, it’s not about eliminating or excluding people,” Wondercheck said. “We’re very welcoming people, and I want people to feel welcomed and embraced within our experience and celebrate it with us.”

For more information, visit muscocenter.org.

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