Arts & Learning: Black Creatives Start Young
By Dianne Anderson
When pondering the high demand for Black artistic creative types in Orange County, Debora Wondercheck need not look far.
Her recent production, “Once on This Island, Jr.” portrayed a more culturally enlightened version of Hans Christian Anderson’s original, conversely featuring the complexities of how a dark-skinned Haitian girl falls in love with a light-skinned mixed boy.
But the island doesn’t mix.
“There’s a line drawn through that whole ethnocentric divide, the colonized mix. It’s just another world. That whole production deals with racism and all the “isms,” it doesn’t have the same ending that you would think,” said Wondercheck, founder and CEO of Arts & Learning Conservatory in Costa Mesa.
To represent the play correctly, she needed a full cast of local Black kids. The production held this summer at Concordia University drew out the most diverse audience imaginable from as far as Long Beach and the Inland Empire.
“It was the launch of this particular production that I started reaching out into our Black community even more so, [it launched] many more ACTivism projects to come. We are acting out issues that are happening today,” she said.
With a recent grant from Orange County Community Foundation, their nonprofit will bring Black creators together again in a production slated for spring of next year with acting, spoken word, dance and orchestra.
“In the center of it all is to celebrate our accomplishments artistically. We’ll have an orchestra with music that was written by an African American artist. There are African Americans that have written classical music that many of us don’t know about,” she said.
Before founding the conservatory 17 years ago, Wondercheck was a master school teacher in the Irvine School District for 10 years, a cellist and conducted the orchestra with student teachers working under her in string pedagogy.
Back then, she started the nonprofit with 21 kids on a school summer camp. By the following year it grew to 140 kids on instruments, acting, singing, dancing, and learning what it takes to put on a full production. Today, her program has grown to 1,200 students, and pulling 10,000 in audiences. Until recently, they were at nearly 40 schools throughout Orange County, San Bernardino County and parts of Los Angeles.
Wondercheck, also the program grant writer, keeps the momentum going through many underwriters, enabling high-quality instructors to work with schools and nonprofits in lower-income communities.
One success story was when an Inland Empire school was taken over by the state. The principal called her for help as the arts programs were cut from the curriculum. Through the conservatory musical exposure, several students there also ended up going to college.
“If there are schools that need that kind of assistance, we have a grant writer and we have enough know-it-all to be able to walk into a place and make a program happen,” she said.
Beyond performance technique, she also wants students to have productive spaces to spotlight their issues and make their voices heard.
Lately, the pandemic has slowed things down with the schools, but it’s not stopping their outreach. They have joined forces with several YMCA and Boys and Girls Clubs. She also works with Second Baptist Church, the 100 Black Men of Orange County, the local chapter NAACP, and support from sororities, the Deltas and the Links.
“We’re just looking for more youth organizations and we can bring the program to them right where they’re at. I have about 25 teaching artists that go out into the schools and make it happen,” she said.
Students can start the program as young as age five.
“If you get these students when they’re young, it becomes ingrained in who they are,” she said. “It’s going to take parents to understand that this can get them into college. It can help them right now with how they handle school.”
Wondercheck started violin at three, switching to cello at age five, and is the youngest of seven children, but her parents were not musicians. Her mother grew up in an all white community and wasn’t allowed to play.
Steeped in the gospel tradition, Wondercheck played the church circuit growing up and performed on television. Of her six siblings, all played string-based instruments proficiently, except her brother who is disabled, and played bells.
When her mother learned that kids could get into college with scholarships by playing an instrument, it was game over.
“My sweet little mom turned into a drill instructor,” she laughs. “Everybody, all of us received four-year scholarships to universities around the United States.”
All those early performing experiences have stayed with her, molding her approach to form the program for the kids. Most of the mentoring and guidance for students is all about getting them into higher education.
The conservatory shows parents and students how music can get them from grade school to college, and the way to earn a great standard of living. From there, it’s not unusual to reach success on a global scale.
“With this alone, me and my siblings at different times of being in the orchestra, this has taken us around the world,” she said.