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TBA Online: News & Features: April 2016

Company Spotlight: Ubuntu Theater Project

Friday, April 8, 2016   (0 Comments)
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By Laura Ng

Ubuntu Theater Project’s mission—to inspire compassion through exquisite theatrical experiences—is inspiring audiences with the flame of their social acts, bringing productions out from behind the proscenium into the places of industry, worship, leisure and rehabilitation that connect our community.

William Hartfield in Ubuntu Theater Project’s production of The Gospel of Lovingkindness by Oakland native Marcus Gardley, staged in Oakland City Church. Photo: Courtesy of Ubuntu Theater Project 

Passing a marquee-less façade into a building corridor where character costume wardrobes hang in neat expectation, audience members attending Ubuntu Theater Project’s recent production of The Gospel of Lovingkindness arrived at the playing space—Oakland City Church—through the clergyman’s entrance under a billowing white cloth that spans the rafters. In the candlelit sanctuary, the pews had been pushed out to either side, opening up the nave so that, rather than peering at an altar over the backs of necks, theatregoers faced each other and the actors. The devotional setting transformed the assembly into a de facto congregation, gathered to hold a vigil for grief and a trial for moral courage; both provoked by a young black man’s death by gun violence. Witnessing The Gospel of Lovingkindess sympathetically present both victim and assailant—played by the same actor, William Hartfield—as undetermined, until chance triggers their roles into emerging as two sides of the same coin, attests to why Ubuntu Theater Project is captivating new audiences with its nimble spirit and enormous soul.

Ubuntu Theater Project coartistic director Michael Moran. 
Photo: Courtesy of Ubuntu Theater Project

“‘Ubuntu’ means ‘I am because we are,’ or, ‘My humanity is tied to yours,’” coartistic director Michael Moran explains of the word’s Zulu origins. Moran, an East Bay native, sees theatre’s collective ritual and revelation as a conduit for bringing people together—an idea he formed as a young transplant with little money in Chicago—and an experience he wanted to share widely, among all members of his community, to whom he felt linked. That guiding purpose led him to found Ubuntu Theater Project with longtime friend Colin Blattel (now the company’s managing director); the two hungered for works relating to Oakland’s remarkably diverse populace, which was not yet served by a single premier Equity theatre company.

Ubuntu Theater Project managing director Colin Blattel. Photo: Courtesy of Ubuntu Theater Project

Moran and Blattel’s friendship began during middle-school theatre productions in El Cerrito, and grew towards an artistic partnership in high school, when Moran wrote and directed—and Blattel starred in—a play called Two Roads. Blattel would go on to study public policy in Sacramento, while from 2012 to 2015 Moran attended UCSD’s highly ranked graduate directing program, where he met future Ubuntu coartistic director William Hodgson. Moran and Hodgson mounted extracurricular productions together in San Diego, reconvening with Blattel in the Bay Area during summer breaks, and inviting fellow UCSD students to come along and continue workshopping the shows.

Hodgson, an Oakland native, had been struck by conversations at a Theatre Communications Group conference that criticized theatre training programs for doing a disservice to communities by encouraging African American actors to move to major markets like New York or Los Angeles instead of returning to feed the local cultural pipeline. Hodgson thinks of his city as more akin to Baltimore and Detroit than to NY or LA; more than a sense of home, what drew UTP’s founders back to Northern California was hope—hope in “Bay Area liberalism and open-heartedness, a social justice ethic,” Hodgson says. “Oakland is the epicenter of all of that.”

Ubuntu Theater Project coartistic director William Hodgson. Photo: Courtesy of Ubuntu Theater Project

The artist/administrators began fundraising on Kickstarter in July 2013 and rehearsed in whatever spaces were available via personal connections (including the clubhouse in Moran’s mother’s residential complex). By September, after reaching their fundraising goal in little over a month, their moonlight productions multiplied into the inaugural Breaking Chains Festival: four plays in four cities at five venues Bay-wide over about two weeks. Three years later—on the day after the presidential State of the Union address that took gun violence center stage—The Gospel of Lovingkindness opened to launch Ubuntu’s first full season.

Ubuntu has called its work “site-specific” for staging theatre in unconventional found spaces. This approach was, from the team’s earliest conversations, both economically desirable and an inviting artistic challenge. A church, for example, has considerable space restrictions that are not conducive to scene shifts, and offers minimal lighting cue control—yet, for Lovingkindness, had to serve as funeral parlor, house, urban street and courtroom. The company has staged other productions in similarly unlikely spaces, including an airport hangar, an auto shop, art galleries, juvenile centers, a shoe store and a park merry-go-round—and will return to Oakland City Church for its production of The Grapes of Wrath, which opens tonight.

Ubuntu Theater Project’s production of Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty, which the company
staged in an Oakland auto repair shop. Photo: Jim Carmody

The company feels that siting art outside a traditional venue recontextualizes the theatrical experience, making it more psychologically and socially accessible. While these unique environs may not provide a flawless illusion of all of the settings required by a show, they enliven the audience’s relationship to the city’s own stories. Residents re-engage their own neighborhoods in what Moran describes as “the rhetorical aspect: ‘This is your story, you don’t have to go across town […] for high-quality art.’” And you can show up in a beanie or baseball cap, and no usher will bat an eye.

Ubuntu is finding that this mutuality nourishes the connection between the arts and civic issues. “[Local partnership is] ethically also a necessity,” adds Hodgson. “The way we create theatre, people approach us saying, ‘If you want to talk about these issues, we need your help telling that story.’” Lovingkindness was written by Oakland’s celebrated native son, Marcus Gardley; the play was a commission from Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theater but serves as a poetic tribute to his hometown. Through a relationship of trust with the playwright, UTP was able to secure his permission to incorporate hymns and movement not originally written into the script into their production.

But it’s not always easy. “There’s definitely a pause,” Moran admits, at that first ask to stage a play in spaces not chartered for performance. In the case of Oakland City Church, it was sheer luck: the pastor’s wife turned out to be a playwright and their son a lighting designer. And the company knows that, in the insular Bay Area, some people might be disinclined to venture out from their home locality—to, say, the commonly perceived “rough” community of Fruitvale—which, Moran says, begs the question: “Can we get audiences to go to these different spots and eradicate unconscious bias […] to feel welcome there?”

“Shows that we are picking hopefully point beyond quality theatre to community organizing, to compassion,” Moran adds. “All the layers and levels that go into that can be a source of strengthening for our culture for one another and healing.”

UTP’s founders initially chose “ubuntu” because it was “the only word that comprehensively encapsulated a worldview missing from our culture and society: to look at the person next to you and see them fully,” says Moran. The company continues to honor this idea by retaining a diverse ensemble, that represents its conscientious and deep commitment to inclusion and reinvigoration of community, and by acknowledging each ensemble and creative member’s contribution to the team, down to its youngest participants. UTP’s collaboration with teaching institutions such as Laney College, established in summers traveling between Northern and Southern California while scouting locations, remains a mainstay mode of experimentation, dialogue and bilateral learning between working artist and student that is intrinsic to their practice.

Ubuntu Theater Project’s
The Grapes of Wrath, written by Frank Galati, is a TBA Editors’ Pick for April. The production runs through April 24.