Ubuntu Theatre Project Does Bold Work

Ubuntu Theatre Project Does Bold Work


The 5-year-old Oakland theater troupe doesn’t let its small budget get in the way of doing great and accessible theater.

At the Ubuntu Theatre Project, financial need breeds audacity. Michael Socrates Moran was 24 when he started the Oakland company and had just earned his Master of Fine Arts degree at the University of California at San Diego.

“That first summer of 2013, I convinced two-thirds of the entire MFA program at UCSD to come here and put up these site-specific shows,” Moran, the company’s 30-year-old artistic director, remembered.

“We did Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love at the Tilden Park merry-go-round, Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman and Dael Orlandersmith’s Yellowman at a shoe store in downtown Oakland, and Daniel MacIvor’s Here Lies Henry at Park Day School.

“We produced all four shows for a total of maybe $15,000. It was nuts.”

For Moran, who grew up in Richmond and El Cerrito and studied at the London Academy of Music & Dramatic Art, good art doesn’t require big money. Ubuntu still operates on a tiny budget — $30,000 per production — but in the last two years, the company won awards for best East Bay production from the San Francisco Bay Area Theater Critics Circle.

“A lot of companies think small when they get started,” said Patrick Dooley, founding artistic director of Shotgun Players in Berkeley. “[Ubuntu] has been really savvy in mixing up radical re-imaginings of classics with thoughtful productions of new work.”

Too often, Moran said, “theater has been a middle-class enterprise, almost by necessity because it costs so much to make. So you get a predominantly middle-class audience.” By keeping ticket prices at a minimum — season subscribers can name their own price — and also by consistently hiring actors of color, Ubuntu has become, Dooley said, “arguably the most inclusive theater in the Bay Area.”

“I want to know if theater can be a congregation point,” Moran said, “a place where people from all different backgrounds find a home … If someone looks on stage and sees someone that looks different than them but sees themselves in that person, I think that is profound.”

From the get-go, Ubuntu practiced race-conscious casting. When Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman was staged last year, the lead role Willy Loman was played by a Hispanic actor, his wife Linda by an African-American actress, and their sons Biff and Happy, respectively, by Filipino-American and Egyptian-American actors.

“When we cast a play, it’s important that it’s diverse, in part because Oakland is diverse,” Moran said.

Ubuntu has grown a following in a short time and won strong reviews from Bay Area critics. Money, however, is a challenge: Foundation grants, donations, and ticket sales keep the company afloat, but Ubuntu still doesn’t have its own theater — just a small office/rehearsal space in west Berkeley. Moran gets paid “a very low wage” for a workweek that averages 60 hours.

Next up: Moran is directing Pool of Unknown Wonders: Undertow of the Soul, a new adaptation of Hermann Hesse’s novel Journey to the East, opening Aug. 31. After that, he’ll take on a marathon task, directing and playing the title role in Hamlet, opening Oct. 12.

Why so many classics? “I gravitate toward works that have kernels of wisdom to be mined,” Moran said. “And I’m not sure we’re in a wise moment right now.”