Life for the Ujima Theatre Company, which operates out of a cozy space on the second floor of a creaky Elmwood Avenue building, has never exactly been easy.
The company was founded in 1978 and has struggled since to keep itself afloat, all the while churning out an impressive array of productions and drawing perhaps the most diverse audience of any Buffalo theater. Its founder and longtime director, Lorna C. Hill, has been a vocal and eloquent champion of the theater's mission to produce plays relevant to the lives of Buffalo's underserved residents.
Hill has rarely missed an opportunity to decry the sorry state of arts funding in Buffalo and Erie County and to wonder aloud why it has been so difficult for her theater to attract the support it needs to thrive. For the nearly seven years I've covered the company, it has always seemed to be teetering on the brink of closure, even while continuing to churn out excellent productions relevant to the experiences of underrepresented Buffalonians.
But in a promising new collaboration, Ujima may finally be charting a course for stability. In the upcoming season, the company will welcome a new theater organization into its space. The Buffalo Public Theater, a project launched by veteran local actors and directors Kelli Bocock-Natale and Loraine O'Donnell, will take up residence at Ujima in the fall. The new company will produce two shows in the coming season, an adaptation of “The Wizard of Oz” in December and Euripides' play “The Trojan Women” starring Hill in the central role of Hecuba next spring. The companies will also jointly produce a one-night staged reading of “Our Town” in October.
Bocock-Natale and O'Donnell are two of the more familiar faces on Buffalo's theater scene and responsible for dozens of memorable projects. They have parted ways with Red Thread Theatre, a company focused on stories by and for women they launched with Josephine Hogan, Eileen Dugan, Christina Rausa and Colleen Gaughan in 2010. The new project, Hill and her two new partners agreed, is poised to infuse some much-needed energy and organizational structure into the company.
Part of the wisdom of this collaboration lies in its practicality. It bodes well that Bocock-Natale and O'Donnell are not biting off more than they can chew, as younger and less experienced producers so often do, and have only programmed two productions for their first year. That, ideally, will give the two companies a chance to get to know one another without the collaboration-killing ingredients of constant stress and unrealistic deadlines.
For Bocock-Natale, who has long had a respectful working relationship with Hill, the prospect of joining a company in a perpetual state of struggle is not as daunting as it might seem.
“The reason why I'm so comfortable about walking into the situation is it still doesn't feel like I'm taking on an entire theater company by myself, or just Loraine and I. They have a lot of stuff in place,” she said, referring to the efforts of gifted Ujima executive director Rahwa Ghirmatzion and other members of the company. “If we can give Lorna a couple of people that are really steady on their feet, I think that's going to help their company as well.”
“When we bring our resources to the table, I don't really see how we can lose,” said Hill, who is recovering from breast cancer and said she is excited to return to the stage. Because of Ujima's rocky state, Hill's illness and the fact that she has been tasked with directing most of the shows there in recent years, she hasn't had an opportunity to be on stage in several years.
The collaboration, all parties agreed, will give Hill a chance to showcase her acting talent, which has brought her major accolades in the past and has the potential to draw larger audiences.
The road ahead will not be easy, and as with any collaboration, each side will need to feel the other out and determine if the fit that sounds ideal on paper turns out to be that way in practice. If this seeming miracle occurs, Ujima may finally have a chance to thrive and to meet its enormous potential.
“We're gonna do our darnedest,” Bocock-Natale said. “It really feels right.”