Ujima Theatre Perseveres through Move, Pandemic, Death of Founder

August 8, 2022—Over the past few years, I have provided succession planning workshops for arts organizations across the country. Recently, I ran across the example of the Ujima Theatre, which is in Buffalo, New York, and has had several years of major upheavals. I think its story offers invaluable lessons for the readers of Arts & Culture Connections.

Ujima Company founder Lorna C. Hill was an actor, storyteller, poet, and playwright, as well as the artistic director. “Ujima” is a Swahili word, and it means “collective work and responsibility.” The initial collective she formed in 1978 was comprised of 28 people who were around her age or a bit younger. Ms. Hill recruited them by asking the question, “How would you like to seize the means of theatre production rather than wait for the white dominant culture to hire you?”

The people who joined Ujima Company were racially diverse, and the collective modeled itself on the concept of becoming an ideal family. Their collective agreement included how they would interact with each other, as well as collective control of their theater work. They also wanted to be able to raise their children inside the organization.

In a Creative Exchange interview posted on Springboard for the Arts, Ms. Hill clarified that the collective was not always for and by Black people, and it did not exclusively perform Black theater. Ujima Company incubated the first lesbian theater company and the first Latino theater company in Buffalo because these were groups that had nowhere else to go. Over the years, collective members have not only been Black, but also included other people of color, as well as white people.

Ms. Hill told the interviewer: “Our end goal is to use theater to build and perpetuate a beloved community. That’s a worthy goal of any institution. We only do work that lifts up the idea of a situation that is significant and explores how it happened, who is responsible and, whether it is a happy or tragic ending, it gives you some idea of how you can participate in a solution.”

Ujima Theatre has upheld those values for more than 40 years. It survived a move to a new and permanent space (precipitated by a leaky roof); the pandemic, and the 2020 death of Ms. Hill.

Sarah Norat-Phillips is a founding collective member. She recently returned to active membership following Ms. Hill’s death to serve as the interim artistic director and to lead the interim artistic director committee to preserve the future of Ujima Theatre.

“It has been an emotional roller coaster for me and for the company and the alumni,” Ms. Norat-Phillips said in an interview with Spectrum Local News. “(Lorna) built quite a family, and we are forging forward to preserve her legacy.”

The 2021/2022 season launched last October. It has included the plays American Son, Spunk, and Ezell: Ballad of a Land Man, an eco-cultural project and farm fresh meal, with Clear Creek Creative. The entire season was planned by Ms. Hill the spring before her death. She wanted the season to personify the collective’s commitment to love and justice for its “beloved community.” Ms. Hill also wanted to make sure that Ujima Theatre remained culturally specific as a constant force for the advancement of African American theater and social justice.

Although Ms. Hill was the face of Ujima Theatre, the company always operated as a collective and had a deep culture of resilience. Collective members say that foundation has survived and is the root of its current efforts. Today, Ujima Theatre remains the longest-running professional repertory company in Buffalo.

About its future, the company has posted the following on its website:

“Ujima Company’s strength lies in its reliability, the consistency of its artistic vision, and its adherence to the principles embodied by the Swahili word for which it is named. For four decades, under the leadership of Lorna C. Hill, founder and artistic director from 1978-2020, the company has provided diverse Western New York audiences with solid, professional theatre experiences. While firmly rooted in the many traditions of African-American theatre, Ujima includes in its long history, productions from the traditions of other people of color, from other countries and cultures, and from the all-encompassing spectrum of traditional and contemporary American theatre. Ujima is constantly growing, evolving, improving.”

I am impressed by the collective commitment and effort it has taken to sustain through several challenging obstacles this vital arts institution to the Buffalo community. The Ujima Company model of collective leadership, responsibility and accountability is a wonderful example of how arts organizations can leverage Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Access, as well as Belonging, to build a sustainable foundation and strong community ties.

As always, I would like to know what you think. I invite you to share your experience working within an arts collective, or your comments about the Ujima Company experience.

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