Passing Strange Inaugurates Ujima’s New Home

pictured above: Lorna C. Hill (far left) and cast: Augustus Donaldson, Zoe Scruggs, Brian Brown, Preach Freedom, Jacqueline Cherry, Tianna Livingston, and London Leeby Carmen Laura Phillips

This spring Ujima Theatre Company will be inaugurating their new home with a floor-boards rattling raucous production of Passing Strange, the story of a young Black man’s migration from Los Angeles to Europe, and subsequent coming of age as an artist, that will stay in your bones long after you’ve left your seat.

Part rock, funk, and blues performance – part theatrical production – there’s very little on stage that can rival Passing Strange. 

In this soulful autobiography, our narrator Stew recounts his youth growing up in middle class 1970’s Los Angeles, and being rooted in the Black church, before crossing the ocean to live in Berlin and Amsterdam where he discovers new perspectives on Blackness, questions of responsibility, and figuring out how to become someone who was always just beyond his grasp. For Stew, and the audience, home must become a long distant memory before it can be unearthed and brought back into the light.

Permeating throughout is a love letter to the impact of Black music that stretches from its gospel roots, to its forgotten history in punk and rock n’ roll, to the rhythms of our very beating hearts. Call it a concert, with its own story to tell!

Few are better suited to tell this story than Ujima Company. Lorna C. Hill, the founder and artistic director of Ujima, has made a name for herself by elevating the nuances and beauty of Black life, providing generations of Western New York audiences with stark and gripping portrayals of Black humanity.

Ms. Hill is joined by piano virtuoso Michelle Thomas as music director and keyboardist, and Naila Ansari, who defines energy and edge, as choreographer. Together they lead a cast of Ujima veterans and newcomers – Brian Brown, Augustus Donaldson, Jacqueline Cherry, Preach Freedom, Zoë Scruggs, London Lee and Tianna Livingston – powerful black talent who generously leave their absolute everything on stage night after night. The cast is supported by stellar musicians Jerry Livingston on bass, Preston Brown on drums, and Tony Genovese on guitar (Frank Grizanti, guitar alternate). Their performances will provoke   thunderous applause and sublimely quiet introspection when you least expect it.

Passing Strange made its Tony-nominated Broadway debut in 2008 and has spent the last decade weaving a tale of leaving your home, your country, the only life you’ve ever known in order to find out who you really are. It’s a story of blackness that runs against the grain, as gut-wrenching as it is high energy. Buffalo has not seen anything like it.  

When Stew sings out, “Is it all right?” You’re going to find yourself leaping to your feet to call back in love and pain, “Yeah, it’s all right.” With Ujima at the helm, it’s all right and more.

The Grand Opening weekend of Ujima’s production of Passing Strange is May 3 – 5, which will also be the public opening of their new home, a freshly refurbished theater in the former School 77 at 429 Plymouth Street on Buffalo’s West Side. The theater is an integral part of PUSH Buffalo’s state-of-the-art renovation of the former school into its own offices as well as the Peace of the City after-school program and affordable senior housing. Ujima invites the community  to join them as they celebrate their new home together. 

Performances will run through May 26, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7 p.m. and Sundays at 4 p.m.

Tickets are available through their website, or call (716) 281 0092.

*Passing Strange  contains adult language and situations.

Lorna C. Hill, the visionary founder and artistic director of Ujima, created the theatre company in 1978 despite naysayers who told her that a collective such as the one she envisioned would not work. That was some 41 years ago.   Ujima Theatre remains  very much alive today  – a clear embodiment of the Swahili meaning of its name –   collective work and responsibility.

A Brief Conversation With Lorna C. Hill

Lorna C. Hill

Ms. Hill, who is incredibly talented, was the first woman accepted at Dartmouth College, where she received her B.A. in American Intellectual History in 1973. She received her M.A. in 1978 from   State University of New York at Buffalo.

Q. Why Did You Form Ujima Theatre?

A. I wanted to start a professional theatre company dedicated to the preservation and perpetuation of African American theatre. I wanted us to seize the means of production.

Q: What Was The Very First Play Ujima Produced? 

A: A Full length play, Anansi The Spider and The Children’s Bill of Rights.

Q: Who Were Some Of The Founding Members Of Ujima?

A: Nas Afi, Ramon Alvarez, Renee Armstrong, Barbara Barnes, Alton Bowen, Joyce Carolyn, Cllifford Cochran, Thomas Dooney, Beverly J. Dove, Colleen Dove, Magdalena Estrada, Lydia Gelsey, N. Regina Jackson, James Mabry, Kay Miller, Claudia Minor, Monique Mojica, Elise, Pearlman, Sarah Norat Phillips, Dwight Simpson, Verniece Turner and Richard “Flick” Williams.

Q: Who Were Some Of The “Famous People”   Who Have Graced Ujima’s Stage Or Been Connected With Ujima Over The Years?

A: Melvin Van Peebles , Roslyn Ruff, Oscar Brown, Jr., Oscar Brown, Maggie Brown, Eugene Lee, Ron OJ Parson, Emanuel Fried.

Q: When Did You Move Into The 429 Plymouth  St. Location?

A: August 2018

Q: Why Did You Choose Passing Strange As The First Production In Your New Location

A: It’s funny and poignant. It’s a familiar journey. It’s rocking good time. I love directing musicals!

Q: How Did You Ultimately Decide Who Your Cast Would Be?

A: I chose seven actors a year ago. Only two of those actors remain in the current cast. All were chosen because they are very talented and right for the part.

Q: What Does The Future Hold For Ujima? What Is Its End Goal?

A: Staying alive. Serving the beloved community is our purpose and purpose has no end.

Q: Ujima’s Next Production?

A: Pipleline by Dominique Morisseau, Sept.13 – Oct.4, 2019.