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‘Gospel Voices of OC’ spreads the gospel of influential African American women at Musco Center

Chapman University's 2023 production of “Gospel Voices of OC" at Musco Center for the Arts.
(Karen Tapia / Greg Andersen)
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When Debora Wondercheck began producing “Gospel Voices of OC,” she hoped the artistic concert in conjunction with Juneteenth would be come an annual tradition.

“I wanted it to become a staple in the county. I wanted it to be something where we could celebrate who we are,” she said.

As the show returns for its third season to Musco Center for the Arts at Chapman University on Saturday, June 8, her dream is becoming a reality.

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The word “gospel” comes from the Greek “euangelion” that translates to “good news.” Christians use the word to refer to the teachings of Jesus Christ, and at their core, gospels are stories. Gospel music is a blend of African musical traditions and new forms that can be traced to the transatlantic slave trade and has always been about sharing a story.

“I called it ‘Gospel Voices of Orange County’ because within the African American community, our ancestors saw the church as a place where we would actually have a voice,” Wondercheck said.

Produced by Wondercheck, founder and chief executive officer of the nonprofit Arts & Learning Conservancy in Costa Mesa, and presented by Musco Center Presents and Chapman University’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, the concert highlights the influence of gospel music on our nation. The show traces the history from June 19, 1865, when news of the Emancipation Proclamation reached enslaved Texans, to the present with performances in choir, dance, band, spoken word, digital media and theater.

“The different voices that we are going to be celebrating, the voice of dance, the voice of the choir, spirituals, jazz, blues all of that comes from what a spiritual is,” said Wondercheck. “It is a retelling of a struggle that you are going through.”

The concert will benefit the Arts & Learning Conservatory, a nonprofit that works with Orange County school districts to provide student scholarships and no-cost musical theater, band and string classes.

Wondercheck created “Gospel Voices of OC” three years ago out of the civil unrest that was happening in Orange County.

“With George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, all of the horrible things that there were happening, I kept thinking there has to be a way to bridge our community together in celebration,” she said. “So I came up with the concept of ‘Gospel Voices of OC’ to be a celebration of African American artistry.”

Wondercheck envisioned the program as a way for artists and audiences to come together and honor the artistic works and historical impact African Americans have had on our nation.

This year’s theme, “Sacred Sounds, Soulful Queens,” tells the story of women who have influenced America’s performing arts.

“We are honoring trailblazing women who have made a huge impact in the world of the arts, and in our culture and our history,” Wondercheck said. “We are honoring these women because we want to make sure people remember who they are.”

The work of Katherine Dunham, regarded as the queen of African American dance, will be honored along with singer/songwriter/guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who many credit with creating the distinct rock ‘n’ roll guitar sound that influenced artists like Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins and later on, Eric Clapton. American Jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams, who composed original music and wrote musical arrangements for greats like Benny Goodman and Dizzy Gillespie, will also be highlighted.

“Gospel Voices of OC" returns to Chapman University Musco Center for the Arts.
“Gospel Voices of OC” returns to Chapman University Musco Center for the Arts.
(Karen Tapia / Greg Andersen)

“She influenced and trained Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker,” Wondercheck said of Williams. “But do we even know who she is? We are reminding people of these amazing women.”

Contemporary artists will be signing and performing excerpts from these women’s work. Like jazz guitarist and vocalist, Felicia Collins, best known for her work with Paul Schaffer and the CBS Orchestra on “The Late Show with David Letterman.”

She played Rosetta Tharpe on Broadway and she‘s flying in from New York be our Rosetta,” Wondercheck said of Collins.

Collins will be joined by vocalists Angie Fischer, Meloney Collins, Deidrick Bonnor and Singers of Soul in bringing these women’s stories to the forefront at this year’s show.

Dr. Reginald “Reg” Chhen Stewart, Ph.D. Vice President of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Chapman University said he is proud to welcome Wondercheck’s production back to Chapman for a third year.

“‘Gospel Voices of OC’ continues to be our community’s premier showcase for the storytelling of the Black experience in the United States,” said Stewart. “Chapman University is the host and a proud sponsor of the event and we encourage all to come and engage, learn and celebrate.”

Wondercheck said she hopes Chapman University will continue to host “Gospel Voices of OC” annually. She also hopes the program will grow beyond Orange County.

“I always had in mind that this would be a annual event, but what is happening now is I am getting calls for it to grow across the state.” said Wondercheck. “Eventually, I feel like it’s going to be national.”

“Gospel Voices of OC” takes place on Saturday, June 8 at Musco Center for the Arts at Chapman University at 7 p.m. Tickets can be purchased at muscocenter.org.

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