What’s Right in a World of Wrong

Ubuntu Theater Project explores society’s shades of gray.

If all of the productions slated for Ubuntu Theater Project’s 2019 season will lead to lively post-show conversations, it’s equally true that they’ll be just plain lively theater. Once again, the now 9-year-old ensemble will produce its shows in multiple locations, and, once again, “radical inclusivity” for its material, actors, and audience is part of the company mission.

“We find a relationship between the community and the space [we’re performing in],” said Ubuntu Executive and Artistic Director Michael Moran, citing the company’s 2016 production of Othello in a North Berkeley Persian rug store as an example.

Dedication to radical inclusivity, said Executive Associate Leigh Rondon-Davis, opens up the productions to people and artists often excluded from the traditional theater for racial, gender/sexual identity, and financial reasons.

This season’s theme, “Moral Humans/Immoral Society,” was inspired by Moran’s interest in Reinhold Niebuhr’s 1932 book, Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics. “He writes about all human beings trying to transcend the ‘systems;’ how individual morality can overcome group immorality,” Moran said.

Opening Feb. 8 and running through March 3 is Bertolt Brecht’s 20th-century classic Mother Courage and Her Children. Written by the German playwright in 1939 as Germany invaded Poland, this version is the Tony Kushner (Angels in America) translation, first seen in 2006 in The Public Theater’s Central Park production with Meryl Streep in the title role. Far more than simply an anti-war play, Mother Courage explores what happens to the least fortunate during conflicts. “It felt particularly appropriate for the times we are in,” Moran said. “And it has both humor and grit to it.”

Brecht’s famous epic style both “drags you in and alienates you,” he added, noting that audience members have to think along with the story of Mother Courage and her three children, learning that what is “right” can be very hard to determine. The production will be part of Ubuntu’s partnership with Mills College and will be performed in Mills’ recently renovated theater.

Later in March, Ubuntu presents August Wilson’s How I Learned What I Learned, originally staged as an autobiographical one-man show performed by the late playwright himself. This is a Bay Area premiere and is a co-production with Marin Theatre Company (who presented it in January), and the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre in San Francisco (Feb. 14-24). Acclaimed Bay Area actor Steven Anthony Jones is featured as Wilson.

The growing problem of homelessness in the East Bay makes Ubuntu’s April production particularly poignant. Down Here Below is a modern adaptation of Russian playwright/novelist Maxim Gorky’s 1902 play The Lower Depths. Moran saw a production of The Lower Depths in Romania and said it offered “a unique lens, following a community on what it means to survive.” He said he hopes Ubuntu’s production, set in an Oakland homeless encampment, will help inspire compassion in audience members, many of whom see homeless people and encampments every day. The adaptation, by Ubuntu Associate Artistic Director Lisa Ramirez, was created with the company’s ensemble members in mind.

Shakespeare enters the picture in May with a fresh take on Romeo and Juliet. “It’s another look at how systems and institutions ” can be very destructive, Moran said. “And, as is often the case, the younger generation has to bear the costs.” Ubuntu’s approach to Shakespeare is designed to make his plays as accessible as possible, both artistically and financially, he noted.

Rondon-Davis brought the next project to Ubuntu, the world premiere of Kristiana Rae Colon’s Florissant & Canfield, opening in August. “Kristiana is a young, African-American playwright from Chicago,” Rondon-Davis explained. “She considers herself an activist first and a playwright second.” Florissant & Canfield was inspired by the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and its effect on the community. Although the subject is serious and sad, Colon’s writing also has a lot of humor and musicality, Rondon-Davis said.

The now rarely seen Eugene O’Neill tragedy, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, follows in October. Largely autobiographical, the play takes place in one day in the lives of the Tyrone family, who both love and are destroying each other. “They are trapped in the family dynamic,” said Moran, who pointed out that one of the play’s themes, drug addiction in a “respectable” family, reverberates in the midst of a nationwide opioid addiction crisis. He added that Irish immigrants James and Mary Tyrone are dealing with the elusiveness of the American Dream, allowing another window of access for contemporary audiences.

Closing the 2019 season in November will be a one-man interpretation of the Sanskrit epic poem, Mahabharata. Moran acknowledged that many theater lovers associate that title with the 1985 nine-hour-long adaptation by director Peter Brook. This version, he explained, is a brand-new one by playwright Geetha Reddy, composed for Ubuntu ensemble member J Jha. “J Jha is an extraordinary actor,” Moran said. The one-man show, he said, returns the epic to its storytelling roots — just one narrator creating a pantheon of characters and action.

For the second year, Ubuntu is offering a “pay-what-you-can” season subscription. The company experimented with “tiered subscriptions” first, Ronson-Davis said, meeting with limited response, but decided, in keeping with its mission of inclusivity, to offer a subscription format based on the belief that people who can afford it will voluntarily pay more. The idea has been a big success for Ubuntu, she said, generating many inquiries from other theater companies interested in the concept, and a feature in American Theatre magazine.

Most of all, Moran said, it facilitates the ways in which those who come to see Ubuntu productions “suspend their socio-economic status. Everyone is general seating, and this often leads to some deeply moving connections as people engage with the show.”

Ubuntu Theater Project, (510) 646-1126, UbuntuTheaterProject.com

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