What Money Can't Buy: The Ujima Company

By BRIAN JOSEPHS
On February 28, 2012

  • The Ujima Company’s rendition of For Colored Girls… is just one of the many performances it has put on in its 33 years of existence. Courtesy of Rahwa Ghirmatzion

For the past few weekends, seven women have gathered on stage in Elmwood's TheatreLoft studios to perform Ntozake Shange's For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf, a classic play in African-American history.

The Ujima Company, a not-for-profit theatre organization, started performing the play in Buffalo on Feb. 17. It would be easy to mistake the play as a tribute to Black History Month because of its cultural significance. However, Lorna Hill, the company's founder and artistic director, stressed that wasn't the case.

"We don't do Black History Month," Hill said. "This is every day for us."

The Ujima Company has been the only theater company in Buffalo to specialize in Afro-American/Caribbean arts for the past 33 years. Hill has served as the company's director throughout its run and, although she's seen changes throughout the decades, many of her creation's trademarks remain – both the good and bad.

The Ujima Company was founded on Dec.15, 1978 when Hill invited 30 actors to attend workshops in hopes of creating a professional production company. That goal eventually came to fruition when Ujima established itself as an independent entity in 1981.

"We were a group of actresses who wanted to act," Hill said. "The only way to do that was to seize the means of production."

That passion is symbolized in the stairway that leads up to the TheaterLoft's performing stage. The flight is lined with multiple posters of the company's past works, some of which are critically acclaimed.

Yalla Bitch!, a play written by Hill herself, was the only African-American written play in the first International Women Playwrights Conference in 1986. The company also presented the world premiere of Dr. Endesha Ida Mae Holland's Pulitzer Prize-nominated From The Mississippi Delta. The play went on to be performed throughout the country soon after. Ujima's other productions include Pulitzer Prize winners Topdog, Underdog, and Glengarry Glen Ross.

Hill believes that her company's main accomplishment is its ability to reach audiences from varying backgrounds. Sunday's performance of For Colored Girls… had a very diverse audience. A mixed crowd has always attended Ujima performances and Hill believes that her company has done its job as long it stays that way.

"It tells me we're doing the right thing," Hill said. "It tells me what I already know to be true – that people are people, and if you do work of quality they'll come and see it. You could do work that resonates with them and they don't have to be [African-American]."

That reassurance comes despite seeing her company constantly on the verge of shutting down almost every year.

The Ujima Company has struggled to survive in Buffalo's retail district. The box office sales are barely enough to maintain the company because of the Elmwood district's scarce interest in the cultural arts, according to Hill.

Hill made numerous attempts to move out of the area, but they've all failed due to lack of funding and support from local banks. She's particularly perturbed by the lack of bank backing, as other businesses in the area have received support.

"They have no confidence that we can do it," Hill said. "I've been paying rent on Elmwood Avenue for 30 years. You know how much rent costs on Elmwood Avenue…Can you find another black-run business in Elmwood?"

Hill also noted that the decision to build UB's North Campus in Amherst was detrimental to her company. She reasons that the location alienates what could've been a huge boost to the company's revenue.

"I don't know what the university does to orient people who are coming to school here from other places," Hill said. "I meet so many people who are about to graduate from UB and they tell me that they never go see anything in Buffalo. They don't know that there was anything in Buffalo…Who said put the campus out there? If they had put it downtown, [many students] would've been trying to come."

The UB students who came to see Sunday's performance of For Colored Girls… praised the performance. UB's Student Support Services, the university's academic support program, took a few students to see the production.

One of the SSS's main goals is to give freshman, from low-income backgrounds, or disabled an opportunity to see cultural activity around Buffalo. A representative from SSS believes the Ujima Company's production was the perfect chance to do so.

"[SSS] enjoyed [the play]," the representative said. "It's the appreciation for being able to see African-American women express different things they've encountered throughout their life experiences, with some students being able to relate with certain [actresses]."

Elizabeth Molina, a freshman undecided major, also raved about the performance.

"I thought it was very moving," Molina said. "Even though you may never experience [what the characters go through], you could sort of relate to some of the emotions. It's so captivating. Everything kind of flowed even though it was different stories. Everything just meshed well."

The 1975 choreopoem (a combination of poetry and dance) expresses the struggles of African-American women through seven characters who represent different colors of the rainbow. The stories portrayed in the play include Lady in Blue's (Saron Ephraim) graphic tale of abortion, Lady in Green's (Zoe Viola Scruggs) metaphorical poem about abandonment, and Lady in Red's (Shanntina Moore) heartbreaking recount of domestic violence.

The actresses found it unfortunate that some of the themes present in For Colored Girls… were still prevalent today, 30 years after the company first performed the play. At the same time, they were happy that the choreopoem still remained relevant because it allows them to connect with women going through their own personal struggles.

Dayatra Hassan, who plays the Lady in Purple, felt personally connected with the show because of that effect.

"There are women that don't get a chance to say what we're saying," Hassan said. "So to say it on stage and be able to hear from people…That, for me, is healing."

Even if the funds aren't there, the Ujima Company has been thriving off its connection with the audience – an everyday deal for Hill's business.

The Ujima Company will be performing For Colored Girls… through March 18.

Email: arts@ubspectrum.com


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