Anyone who thinks live theater is irrelevant in a time when TikTok, Insta and everyone else is battling for eyeballs should make some space in their lives for Ujima Theater Company.
This is not an opinion; that’s a fact.
Just look at the season that begins this week in the house Lorna Hill built: First, there’s “Church & State,” about a U.S. senator up for re-election who must make a political choice over gun control on the heels of a mass shooting. When asked if they were considering inviting rep Chris Jacobs to the opening, Ujima’s acting creative director Sarah Norat-Phillips said she hadn’t thought of it before, but that might be a good idea. (Republican Jacobs, in his words, “committed political suicide” earlier this year when he voted to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines after the May 14 mass shooting in Buffalo.)
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“Church & State” (opening Sept. 16) wasn’t originally on the schedule, Norat-Phillips said, but when Ujima ran into trouble with another piece, “We went looking for something. something that would be relevant but not didactic.”
She chose this piece by Jason Odell Williams, in part because it exposes the humanity behind the tough decisions people make on a tough subject.
“It doesn’t preach to you, it doesn’t demonize, but it does take a hard look at the choices people have to make,” she said. “It shows how, in some ways, politics is now our religion.”
Above all, she says, it is not a soap box.
“The play is written with a lot of humor – the characters are warm, they’re well written, they’re cleverly written,” she said. “There’s a hard turn at the end of the show, but then you get to know these characters. It doesn’t leave people hopeless.
The next show is the one Norat-Phillips is most excited about, in large part because it’s a story very few people know about. Besides, it’s true. “Toni Stone” (November 4) is the story of a black woman who played baseball in the men’s professional Black League more than 60 years ago, making her the first woman to play major league baseball in all of kind in the history of the United States.
“She has a wonderful and obviously rich story about all the things that brought her here,” Norat-Phillips said. “The characters are wonderful. It’s the only woman in the room, it’s her and the team, which is a very interesting image on stage, because she’s their equal – and sometimes superior – on the pitch.
Stating something that women, minorities and especially female minorities have known for a long time, Norat-Phillips said: “She had to be extremely talented to break that barrier.
“And no one knows his name.”
Ujima’s musical show this season is “Choir Boy” (March 10) featuring company general manager Brian Brown leading the way as a prep school student coming to terms with the expectations of teenagers, the sexuality and what it means to be a leader.
The playwright is Tarell Alvin McCraney, who also wrote the Oscar-winning “Moonlight”.
“It’s very much a coming-of-age story, held together with a cappella gospel music,” Brown said. “The main character, Ferris, tries to find his way, dealing with how his peers see him as effeminate and flamboyant, facing hardships and trying to explain what’s going on to adult figures.”
The music, Brown said, is the easiest part for him.
“I already sing in church. It’s more a bit difficult for me because I’m almost 30, and going back to that teenager is more difficult, getting to the essence of his personality,” he said. “Music is my training, so it gives me more comfort.”
The season ends with a production that returns to the here and now. “Cullad Water” (May 5) “is part of our new work, new voice category,” Norat-Phillips said. Written by Erika Dickerson-Daspenza, the story begins with a lead-water crisis and expands into every aspect of people’s lives.
“It’s almost dreamlike,” Norat-Phillips said. “It has a color and tone that is not typical of a play. It’s almost like poetry sometimes.
The disaster for the residents of Flint, Michigan may have inspired the piece, but the recent water crisis in Jackson, Mississippi shows that it is not and will not be an isolated problem.
“We had problems in Buffalo. It hits home, and not just for black families,” Norat-Phillips said, “but for anyone living in one of the oldest housing markets in the country. Our economy is water, and knowing the impact of what that means if you don’t have it. Then, all of a sudden, that’s it!
Ujima Theater Company, 429 Plymouth Ave, 716-281-0092
Sept. 16-Oct. 2: “Church and State”
November 4-20: “Toni Stone”
March 10-April 2: “Choir Boy”
May 5-21: “Cullud Wattah”