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On the coldest night of December last year, all 100 seats at Ujima Company's intimate second-floor theater on Elmwood Avenue were filled.

Smiling theatergoers from the mostly African-American East Side mingled happily with South Buffalonians, Latinos from the West Side and far-flung suburbanites alike. With kids and teens in tow, members of the city's many walks of life came together, like they've been doing for years, to support this small, resilient theater group in its hour of need.

The evening, after all, was a variety show fundraiser for the struggling Ujima, a diverse theater collective that has been regularly producing plays in Buffalo since its inception in 1978. When news came that the company had scrapped its entire 2007-08 season, speculation about the possible closure of this long-standing institution began to circulate.

In a depressing variation on a theme in the Western New York arts world, years of funding cuts and financial woes have left the theater broke. When $58,000 of Erie County funding was cut for Ujima and most other arts and cultural organizations in 2005, the company continued on a downward spiral from which it has been unable to recover.

Ujima's woes are symptomatic of the same disease that has infected Studio Arena Theatre, which continues to struggle with a constantly shifting board, declining audiences and financial mismanagement -- even after it employed consultants to draft a three-phase strategic plan. The difference, however, is that Ujima's management saw fit to stop producing for an entire season and focus exclusively on reorganizing the theater.

"It was a better idea to pull back and reassess and sort of renegotiate with the universe than sort of come out this season doing things under par," said Lorna C. Hill, Ujima's founder and artistic director "I would never want that to happen."

But now, said the group's new executive director, Rahwa Ghirmatzion, the company has used its direly needed hiatus to regroup and devise a more stable future. After securing much-needed funding from the Margaret L. Wendt Foundation and others, Ujima has created a detailed strategic plan, reorganized its board of directors and planned a full season for 2008-2009.

"A year ago, if you would have asked me how is Ujima, I would have had no clue," said Ghirmatzion, who recently took over the position of executive director from the company's founder, Lorna C. Hill. "I would have probably told you if we could make it another month or two, we'd be doing great."

At the time, Ghirmatzion said, she thought she'd be better off, both financially and mentally, if the theater were to shut down. But, she said, given the company's history and deep ties to the community, shutting the doors was simply not an option.

"If you ask me today how is Ujima doing, I can honestly tell you from the bottom of my heart that I can see the light at the end of the tunnel."

>Community support

The audience at the December fundraiser -- maybe 60 percent white, 30 black -- looked a lot like the population of Buffalo itself. But for Ujima, that loyal cultural cross-section -- one of the things that separates them from nearly every other cultural organization in town -- hasn't been enough. On that snowy December night, that audience raised nearly $2,000.

Hill sat off to the side during the benefit, now and again surveying the crowd to gauge their reactions and unable to suppress a beaming smile at the palpable sense of community in the room.

But as Hill or anyone else trying to keep a theater afloat in this town knows, you can't run your business on a sense of community alone.

It's a familiar story for many arts and cultural organizations in the region, and for Ujima in particular. The group was founded as the area's only professional African-American theater company by Hill, a playwright, artist and educator who, to kick off a long and ongoing string of accomplishments, was the first woman ever admitted to Dartmouth College.

Hill's theater has never been far from crisis in its nearly 30-year history, but it has never been quite so close to demise. The theater's staff of three has been working without pay for more than six years, with the trickle of funding from foundation and government sources seldom covering the costs of producing a season. Deficits have been covered by Hill and her family, "and there's only so many times you can do that," Hill said.

Hill's stamina in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds -- from catastrophic budget crises to crippling building code violations -- draws adulation even from other local theater personalities.

"She could have packed it in a long time ago, but she refuses to do that," said Saul Elkin, artistic director of Shakespeare in Delaware Park and Jewish Repertory Theatre. "And I'm glad she hasn't."

Elkin was one of the few to support the effort to create the theater in 1978, when Hill was working as his administrative assistant and sometimes artistic collaborator in the University at Buffalo's theater department. He praised Ujima for its unique dedication to the city's underserved communities.

"In the province of public support, they are as worthy as any cultural agency in town is of that support," Elkin said. "And so it's been a source of distress to me that they've had these difficulties over the years, because they've done some very good work."

And for Hill, an outspoken critic of county and city government who once protested city funding cuts by dressing up as a slave and marching into to City Hall, the issue of public funding is a touchy one.

"There are a lot of things that we want to exist and the only way that they will exist is through public funding," Hill said. "I can think of a number of animals that were on the verge of extinction. I'm looking at the prospect that African-American culture is on the verge of extinction. And then you turn around and expect that a community that's also on the verge of extinction will save that."

More than simply a theater company, Hill sees Ujima as an indispensable resource that is one of the few organizations working to preserve African-American cultural traditions. She said the theater is charged not only with the duty of presenting engaging drama, but in training young minorities in the arts and providing a platform for artistic expression that many communities cannot otherwise get. She calls the medium of theater "a means to an end."

"Our art is fine, but we are not in the fine arts business," Hill said. "We're in the community-building business."

But the fact that the particular communities Ujima serves do not have deep pockets means for Hill that the public has a special duty to her organization -- a duty it has failed to fulfill. She remains frustrated that other organizations like Studio Arena Theatre, the Albright-Knox and the Buffalo Zoo were given preference when Erie County arts funding was restored, and said the expectation that an organization like Ujima must save itself is a failure to see the point.

The company also faces an identity crisis when seeking money from private foundations, which often require an organization to fit into a certain racial or ethnic category in order to receive funds. With an audience that Hill said is 75 percent white, conversations with foundations are often complicated and frustrating owing to Hill's assertion that many funders are not willing to have an honest conversation about the changing racial dynamics of African-American theater. She said she feels the funding process, like the SATs, is often "inherently culturally biased."

The role, makeup and mission of an African-American theater company, Hill said, has changed enormously since Ujima's inception to be much more inclusive and wide-ranging than the more insular black arts movement of the 1960s. That image, she said, remains.

"When are we going to get to the point when we can get the funders to sit down at the table with us and say, yeah, let's review: what does that mean in 2008? I know what it meant in 1978 and '68, but what does it mean now? That conversation is not happening anywhere."

>An artistic aura

Ask any Ujima company member -- of which there are currently 17 in Buffalo and eight who have moved away -- what Ujima means, and you're liable to get an earful.

First, they'll tell you that Ujima is a Swahili word that means "collective work and responsibility," a tenet that has guided the group through dozens of productions, collaborations, community initiatives and educational programs through its history.

"It's collective work, and we are indeed responsible for it," said Beverly Dove, an original member of the company and a face fans have come to associate with the theater. She said the actors of the group have become so comfortable with one another onstage and off, from mopping the floor to building sets, that they've achieved a kind of communal artistic aura that's undeniably magnetic.

The programming at Ujima has been diverse over its nearly three decades. Plays by Hill herself, including the well regarded "Yalla Bitch" and semi-regularly performed "And Bid Him Sing," have factored heavily into the repertoire, as has work from Chicago playwright Oscar Brown Jr. They've also mounted plenty of work that might seem unexpected from group focused on African American theater, including works by Jean Genet, David Mamet, Edward Albee and local playwright Emanuel Fried.

"The Western New York community has an expectation of Ujima," Dove said. "There's a standard that we've set and you can't let it go. You can't leave, you can't abandon it because of things like budgets and building code violations and funding."

As for the future, Ghirmatzion is confident that the company's strategic plan, as well as a proposed administrative collaboration with the African American Cultural Center and Buffalo City Ballet, will position them to slowly grow back into their former glory.

Even this season, Ujima has mounted co-presentations, including the love-themed musical revue "Anyone Who Had a Heart" in mid-February. The new company American Repertory Theatre of Western New York will also use the theater's space to present two shows this spring. Such collaborations are likely to continue in future seasons, Ghirmatzion noted.

A reorganized and retrained board is now responsible for running Ujima, a move both Hill and Ghirmatzion hail as a key to future success. And Hill, who finally transferred the duties of executive director to Ghirmatzion, will be freer to concentrate on perfecting her theater's artistic product. She'll also turn her eyes to more funding sources and work on building the theater's Dunbar Project, an arts training program for the city's African American youth.

But one thing Hill won't do is give up. Her community won't let her.

"God forbid Shakespeare in Delaware Park would go out of business," Hill said, noting that she has supported that group from the start, even designing its first poster. "It's got a soft place in my heart. But if Shakespeare in the Park went out of business tomorrow, guess what? There's no threat to Shakespeare. And this is the difference that we're dealing with.

"We close tomorrow? The need is very specific and it requires, like I said, a different kind of support. It's the Condor. It's the American Eagle."

-mail: cdabkowski@buffnews.com