Over the past five years, life has handed Lorna Hill grief upon grief.
In 2009, the veteran Buffalo actor and stalwart leader of the Ujima Theatre Collective lost her 7-year-old grandson Asa to a car accident. Soon after, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, which she battled with the same fierce determination that has kept her small theater company running since 1978.
And on Friday, after a long absence from the stage and a string of challenges that would have sent lesser women over the edge, Hill will star as the grief-stricken Trojan queen Hecuba in a co-production of Euripedes’ play “The Trojan Women” with newly launched Buffalo Public Theatre.
The all-female play is set in the aftermath of the Trojan War (also the subject of “An Iliad” playing across town in the Road Less Traveled Theatre), in which all the men of Troy have been killed and the women are left to fend for themselves. Hecuba, the widowed queen, must deal as Hill did with the death of her young grandson, as well as with the loss of her husband and the prospect of living out the rest of their lives as slaves to the Greek victors.
“In the play, I have to bury my 8-year-old grandson. I have to say goodbye, I have to part with, I have to release my arms from my 8-year-old grandson,” Hill said in a recent phone interview.
“I’m careful with that because I want to have the best of my memory of doing that to lean on, not the worst of my memory of doing that scene. I want to draw strength from my memory of doing that. I don’t want to fall apart.”
Hill said she teaches “The Trojan Women” to her high school students at Buffalo’s Academy for Visual and Performing Arts, where she has worked for several years while serving as Ujima’s artistic director. She stressed that the play’s central issue, the violent treatment of women as spoils of war, is by no means an ancient one.
“It’s not a dated idea. We may not be used to going right up to them and talking to them like we do in ‘The Trojan Women.’ But it’s not at all mysterious or difficult to understand or difficult to put into a modern context if one would want to,” she said, dispelling the notion that Greek tragedies are somehow stiff or impenetrable. “It’s very straightforward. A child could understand this.”
Buffalo Public Theatre co-founder Kelli Bocock-Natale, who is co-directing the show with her husband, Joe Natale, echoed Hill’s thoughts about the modern resonance of the play.
The show, she said, is about women in war-torn regions who are “able to handle every possible grief thrown at them and still get up and walk and do the next thing they have to do. And they do that. They do that in this play, they do that in Somalia, they do that in Uganda. For me, it’s about the strength, the inner strength of women.”
For Hill, who shares the stage with a substantial cast of new and veteran actors, inner strength in the face of unthinkable tragedy is Hecuba’s chief virtue.
“All of the men are dead at the beginning of the story, but then she has to release her daughter to a man who’s an absolute pig in her regard. She hears that another daughter of hers has been killed, and her daughter-in-law is going to another man who’s pretty much a pig in her estimation, and the grandchild is being thrown off the battlements, and she’s standing there watching it,” Hill said. “So it’s grief upon grief. And there’s got to come a point at which you ask yourself: Am I going to lose my mind? And the answer, hopefully, is no.”
What: “The Trojan Women”
When: 8 tonight through April 19
Where: TheatreLoft, 545 Elmwood Ave.
Tickets: $15 to $25
Info: 883-0380 or www.ujimatheatre.org