Thank you all for being here tonight. In order to fully appreciate where we are now, I want to take you back to where it all began.
Seven years ago I was sitting on a bus in Chicago, holes in my shoes, rushing from my minimum-wage job in the north side of Chicago to rehearsal in the south side.
On my route, I would hop from bus to bus, watching the city and people around me shift dramatically from white to black the farther we moved south. These long commutes were one of the few down moments in my life where I could contemplate the world around me, and the people in it.
And, each and every time in these moments of reflection, I would find myself overwhelmed with gratitude for the bus driver and their commitment to doing their job so well—a job I would never want—yet it was critical in allowing me to pursue my dream.
Coming from a family history that made me feel more at home on the bus than the middle class privilege of the theater world, I wondered, how does this gift of Theatre that the bus driver is allowing me to do, come back around and serve him the way he is serving me?
And this is where the Ubuntu Theater Project was born.
I found myself asking questions: How do we re-bind ourselves so that those who can’t afford a $45 ticket might benefit from the renewable power of theater that I get to practice every day?
I would sit on that bus with folks who were worn and weary from their hard day at work and think, This is where the renewable power of theater needs to be.
And, then I would arrive at rehearsal or a performance and see something a little too hollow.
I would think we as actors and artists need to feel connected to something bigger than our careers, our virtuosity and ourselves.
We need those bus drivers and people on the bus as much as, if not more, than they would ever need us.
Creating theatre is a calling—a calling that every artist in this room has felt. It is crazy, irrational, borderline insane, and costs a great deal in personal, professional and monetary ways.
Yet, we remain called to it. And, we follow it. We follow it with passion, with love, and with the faith and audacity that we have a gift worth giving and that it will be worth receiving.
We follow it, and often we don’t know why.
And, yet, not a day goes by that I don’t ask that question: Why we are doing this?
And, tonight, of course I find myself asking, Why are you doing this? What are you funding? What are you supporting?
Here is what I’ve come up with:
When you fund the Ubuntu Theater Project, you are supporting us on two levels. This first level is the one that we get to brag about:
According to the San Francisco Chronicle, you are funding “one of the most exciting young companies to emerge in the Bay Area theater scene in recent years.”
You are funding A Streetcar Named Desire that played to sold-out houses, standing ovations, and received the highest rating from the SF Chronicle.
You are funding Dance of the Holy Ghosts a West Coast Premiere by Oakland native Marcus Gardley, one of the most prolific and celebrated playwrights in America.
You are funding a World Premiere by Philip Kan Gotanda, one of America’s most famous playwrights and who was at the forefront of the Asian American Theater Art Movement.
You are funding the winner of numerous prestigious awards from the Bay Area Theater Critics Circle including:
Best production in the entire bay area: TO THE BONE by Lisa Ramirez 2017
Best Production in the East Bay 3 years running
Best Actor Mohammad Shehata in Waiting for Godot
And nominations for Ogie Zulueta, Indigo Jackson and Andrew Vargas
for their outstanding work in a variety of Ubuntu productions
You are funding a theater company who’s number of subscribers increased by tenfold over the last year alone, growing our subscription sales by more than 300% while still maintaining our radical pay-what-you-can subscription model and continuing to make our work accessible for everyone.
You are funding an artistic home from which company members launch into the most established theatres in the country, whether that’s J Jha’s role in Straight White Men at Marin Theatre Company, Lisa Ramirez as the Angel in Angels in America at Berkeley Rep, or William Hodgson as Romeo in Romeo and Juliet at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
You are funding a growing culture of Bay Area working actors. Ubuntu company members were represented in all three films produced in Oakland this year. Indigo Jackson in Sorry to Bother You. Rolanda Dene and board member Margo Hall in both Blindspotting and All Day and Night to be premiered soon.
And, ultimately, you are funding the fastest growing theater company in the Bay Area, and the only year-round professional theater company in Oakland.
This is the first level. These are our successes and our bragging rights. They are hard-earned. They are important. They are the proof in the pudding.
But this level alone is not what makes Ubuntu special.
What makes Ubuntu special is the people on and off the stage imbuing the spirit of “I am because we are” in everything that we do and the determination to make it happen.
It’s a staff going above and beyond each and every day because they believe in what Ubuntu has to offer.
It’s a production manager of a site-specific theater company hauling light stands back at the end of the night after each performance of American Jornalero and problem solving when rain floods our stage.
It’s a cast of 25 people huddled in a chilly church singing gospel songs, dancing and acting their heart out because the story they are telling is worth it.
It’s an audience bundled up in blankets, sitting in uncomfortable chairs, crowded in elbow-to-elbow in sold-out houses, venturing into unknown places, all in effort to expand our experience of the world.
It’s having a space on stage, off-stage and in the audience for community members who are transgender, queer, homosexual, cis-gender, white, black, Latino, Asian, middle eastern, homeless, those with master’s degrees, those with high school degrees, those with AA degrees, those from the baby boomer generation, millennial generation and generation X, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Atheist, those that have made a living doing theater and those for whom this is their first play, those on the spectrum, academics, students, esteemed world class artists, novices, low-income, middle class and upper middle class.
And, it is finding a home together at the Ubuntu Theater Project.
All this we have done by the mere openness intrinsic to this company’s mission and name sake “I am because WE are”.
There is no quota and this certainly is not charity. Instead this is a community of conscientiousness, warmness of heart, and the shared value that connecting to the whole of society makes us all the better for it.
We transcend our societal status, not by negating who we are but by delving deeper into ourselves so that we might see ourselves in one another.
And whichever show it was that brought you here tonight...
Whether it’s Topdog/Underdog and the insidiousness of systemic racism.
Or Dance of the Holy Ghosts, and the generational trauma that African American families are overcoming.
Or A Streetcar Named Desire an American classic that reverberates anew.
Or American Jornalero, where Latino immigrants persevere in spite of government persecution.
Or Pool of Unknown Wonders, seeking to excavate the subterranean levels of our national trauma.
Or finally, Hamlet, a cultural myth that reflects the uncompromising truth that the darkness we want to end lives in ourselves.
We are grateful that you joined us then and are with us tonight.
It is this tie, this bond that the theatre can foster, this reaching for the ‘whole’ of life: the renewable power of theatre is found in the connection to one another, so that we might feel a part of humanity, and a part of Life with all its mystery, wonder, joy and sorrow.
As you all know, Ubuntu is a Zulu proverb that means “I am because we are.” And, in a very real way, Ubuntu is because of you.
It is because of your subscriptions, your donations, your attendance, your support and your belief and commitment to the value of theatre that all this is possible.
It is a process founded on faith: faith that people will care enough about reconnecting to the human experience enough to pay attention to one another in shared time and space.
Theater is, in its most fundamental form, an exercise in the ‘I am because we are’ tenet.
And it is this tenet that guides our organization on every level. And it is through this tenet that theatre can make a case, not only for relevance, but also for transformation in today’s world.
We would not be here if it weren’t for you reconnecting with us tonight. You are our lifeline.
We stumble out there in the dark, turn on the lights and hope to offer you a gift of art that is worthwhile.
But, you are the ones that receive it and keep that spirit of the gift alive. It is that spirit of the gift that creates community.
And it is in that spirit that we are here tonight, to keep this community growing.
Of course there are the nuts and bolts: lighting equipment, sound design equipment, salaries for my staff, money for the designers and actors, sites for our productions. All of these require funding, and are extremely necessary for us to continue doing what we do.
But really, it comes down to what can’t be measured, and that is compassion: re-connection to one another’s stories, to ourselves; and the binding of a segregated society.
The Ubuntu community is something that we are both building and already preserving. The spirit is strong and with it we have done more than any other theater company our size or our age. And, that is because of you. That is because you see us. And subscribe to the ethos that Ubuntu has to offer to our world.
This is what you’re funding, what you’re keeping alive—the theatre is not a space, it’s the people, you, us—the ‘we’ of which each of us is a part.