Ubuntu Theater Project: We Are One

by Barry David Horwitz

Ubuntu: A Bantu concept meaning the essence of being a person.

“I am a person through other people. My humanity is tied to yours.”
                        — Zulu Proverb

Ubuntu: The name given to the [Desmond] Tutu Foundation. 

“Ubuntu [is] the essence of being human. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can’t be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality – Ubuntu – you are known for your generosity. We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole World. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.”
                        — Desmond Tutu

Ubuntu: The inspiration for Oakland’s Ubuntu Theater Project.

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The Ubuntu Theater Project has just completed its third year of summer long theater festivals, doing plays from Clifford Odets’ “Waiting for Lefty” to  Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “The Brothers Size,” classic and contemporary works. How did I miss two whole summers of their plays? Well, I was teaching and traveling, but now I have time to enjoy what these Drama grads from UC San Diego have brought us. They have come up North to Oakland and partnered with actors and staff from Laney College. They are creating a new theater to serve all the people of Oakland and the Bay.

When I saw their powerful and lyrical version of “The Brothers Size” in the parking lot behind Dana Myers Auto Care on San Pablo Avenue on Albany, I became an instant convert to Ubuntu. Their work is precise, thoughtful, passionate, and hitting the mark on the crisis of our time. They are working with the best new playwrights and artists from the Bay Area.

So I went to meet three Directors at their cozy office on International Boulevard near Lake Merritt, to find out more from these inspired, hard-working young guys from UCSD, Sacramento, Oakland and all round. They can tell us what Ubuntu is all about, what they are doing up here for three summers, and what expect in Ubuntu’s upcoming full year season, starting in November.

Their Managing Director, tall and angular Colin Blattel, used to live in Sacramento, but has moved back to the East Bay to run Ubuntu. He is keenly devoted to the project, the people, and the mission of this unique project. He also appeared in their recent production of Clifford Odets’ 1935 masterpiece “Waiting for Lefty.” Colin comes from a non-profit administration background and is excited to run a theater company that produces powerful plays, and has the mission of sharing diverse works with new, local audiences. They are bringing exhilarating live performances to people of all ages and backgrounds. When you sit in a warehouse showroom, a car repair shop, or other non-traditional performance site and hear those stirring voices out of the U.S. past, local theater takes on unity and meaning, again. Ubuntu. Watching the carefully choreographed movements of “Waiting for Lefty,” for example, staged in a show room for classic automobiles, you feel like part of the action — just like the union worker and audiences did back in the Depression.

Their artistic team from UC San Diego, MFA School of Theater and Dance, has collaborated with Laney College’s Drama Dept. to provide an exciting mélange of local and visiting artists. The two Artistic Co-Directors are brilliant young actors, William Hodgson and Michael “Socrates” Moran, both Oakland natives who have come back to Oakland from La Jolla to found a new cooperative UC-Laney group that could possibly form the basis of a New Public Theater in Oakland —reinterpreting classics and new plays for a new generation. Sounds like what Joe Papp did for New York in their Public Theater about 30 or more years ago, serving a whole vast metropolitan audience. They are all fired up about making plays that speak to people now. Hodgson talks about “radical hospitality” in their work. They want to bridge the class divide in their theater projects, and bring drama back to the people who live it.

They have produced plays in airplane hangers, auto shops, and at Classic Cars West in Oakland. They have worked with actors who represent all of Oakland — all the racial and cultural groups. And they have produced precisely honed plays that speak to the inequalities and the injustices that we see everyday around us. They are making us one, first in the theater, and then in our lives.

Ubuntu has a mission and a goal, and they are executing it at the highest level. They are starting their first full Fall season in December, and we can look forward to more first class work, with famous plays and works by Gardley and other local writers. Ubuntu has come to Oakland to stay — they are working hand in hand with Oakland actors and directors — they have already made a mark.

These are exciting days for a group that is bringing good news to the Oakland scene. I have seen two of their plays so far — and look forward eagerly to the new season.

On top of all that, they use a “pay-what-you-can” pricing, so no one will be left out of seeing live theater designed to make a difference, locally.

Ubuntu is a theater by and for young actors and young audiences, a training program, and an inspired group. “Waiting for Lefty” has wound up now, but you will be hearing a lot more from Ubuntu in Oakland. They are working to “invigorate and enliven our interconnectedness.” They are making connections between young and old, rich and poor, black and white, Asian and Latino—all the myriad groups that come together to make community and action and art around the Bay.

Michael Torres, Chair of Laney College’s Theatre Arts Dept, says, “Ubuntu has been a critical partner . . . providing our students with unique opportunities to learn alongside more seasoned artists, who are also still young and just as diverse as they are.”

Ubuntu is proving that we are one—let’s become part of that movement.

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