Passing Strange reignites Ujima
Review by ANTHONY CHASE
After the vicissitudes of recent years, what a joy it was to see Ujima Company open a new production of a bold and provocative musical with a youthful cast in a new lavishly beautiful and sustainable theater space.
Founded in the 1980s, at its height Ujima was a stalwart institution within the Buffalo theater scene. It was also the region’s flagship African American company. Time, shifting real estate values, and the erosion of arts funding presented dire challenges to this little collective of artists, but they stubbornly shouldered on. They had a legacy to maintain.
They seem, after herculean effort, to have landed on their feet.
Their production of Passing Strange, directed by company founder, Lorna C. Hill, is lively and fabulously entertaining. Excellent Preach Freedom narrates the tale of a young African American man, played by Brian Brown, trying to find himself by running from his past.
The entire cast is excellent.
Mr. Freedom provides a solid narrative presence injected with devilishly wry humor. His song interpretation is lively and clear.
Mr. Brown exudes boyish charm as “Youth,” the protagonist of the story. He is an aspiring artist whose Pippin-like journey of self-discovery takes him on a rock ‘n’ roll journey to Amsterdam and Berlin where he never forgets, but tries to ignore, his middle-class California background.
“Mother” is played by Jacqueline Cherry with wholesome cheerfulness that, before the evening is over, will bring the audience to tears.
Zoë V. Scruggs deploys her superior singing voice and formidable comic gifts to play a number of vivid characters including one of “Youth’s” high school friends, and his no-nonsense German girlfriend.
Rascally and loveable Augustus Donaldson charms his way through performances as the minister’s son, “Mr. Franklin,” a man with talent and dreams, but insurmountable fears; Dutch Joop; and German performance artist “Mr. Venus.”
London Lee uses his large personality to great effect as "Rev. Jones"; Dutch free thinker "Christophe"; and severe German artist, "Hugo".
Tianna Livingston gives a fine performance as “Edwina the teen goddess of Youth’s high school years; “Marainna” the Dutch woman who first trusts and loves Youth and gives him her keys; and finally as “Sudabey,” a stern German artists with nostalgia for her childhood Teddy bears.
With music direction by Michelle Thomas the show sounds terrific.
Choreography by Naila Ansari is inspired. Indeed, the characters and themes of this production are largely expressed through choreography. Ansari sends us hurtling through space and time, evoking the languid freethinking of Amsterdam, or the artistic and intellectual intensity of Berlin through movement. Similarly, she takes us on a choreographic journey through Youths self-exploration, including a hilarious gambol through Motown and Fosse.
The set by Robert J. Ball is a furnished open space that makes room for Ansari’s spirited vision. Lighting by Nicholas Quinn, using Ujima’s new LED system, is effective.
The icing that holds this exuberant confection together is, in addition to Preach Freedom’s dryly mischievous narration, is the band under the direction of Thomas at the keyboard: Jerry Livingston on the bass guitar; Preston Brown on drums; and Tony Genovese on guitar. They help get the new Ujima space off to a rocking good start.