Ujima’s ‘Wedding Band’ is a Powerful Look at Race, Love, and Resilience (Podcast Included)

This year, Ujima Company, Inc, the oldest repertory theater company in Western New York, has been actively celebrating their 45th anniversary season. Sarah Norat-Phillips, who will be retiring at the end of this season, is currently the Interim Artistic Director for Buffalo’s Ujima theater since 2020, but her connection to the company runs much deeper.

Norat-Phillips spent much of the previous 30 years as an Emmy award winning broadcast television executive in Buffalo and Detroit, but she returned to help the company following the passing of founding Artistic Director, Lorna C. Hill’s, for whom the company’s West Side Theatre space is named. 

“I have been working hard with this young ensemble over the past four years… and we have been very, very active with some wonderful and critically acclaimed productions, like American Son, and Choir Boy, and Spunk, and just in the fall, the huge collaboration with Shea’s and Second Generation Theatre of The Color Purple musical. The Color Purple actually opened our 45th anniversary season, and we’re going to close it with an iconic black play, Wedding Band.  

A founding member of the 1978 company, Norat-Phillips worked in the early days actively on and off stage, directing, producing ,acting  and singing, as well as helping to develop what became the ensemble before moving to Detroit.

With more than four decades of experience behind her, she is leading the company for the final time as director of Alice Childress’ Wedding Band. 

This is the third time the company has produced Childress’ play, and Norat-Phillips feels the company returns to the play because of the incredible writing, and playwright, who has been “rediscovered”  by the broader theater community in the last few years.  

“Alice Childress is probably one of the most overlooked and under celebrated playwrights in modern American theater. She wrote this play and it was optioned for Broadway, [but] they wanted her to soften it. It was a play that was a little too difficult, a little too raw, a little too honest about racial hatred In America, and [Childress] refused… It’s been an important part of Ujima’s cannon. We’ve actually produced it multiple times, although it hasn’t been staged here for over 20 years, so it’s been a long time.”

Alice Childress (October 12, 1916 – August 14, 1994) an American novelist, playwright, and actress, acknowledged as “the only African-American woman to have written, produced, and published plays for four decades.”

The plot of Wedding Band is as follows: Julia Augustine, an African American seamstress in World War I – era South Carolina, is engaged in a forbidden romance with Herman, a white baker. Their love faces societal prejudice, particularly when Herman falls ill inside of Julia’s home, a victim of this country’s Spanish flu epidemic. Amidst war’s upheaval and the flu pandemic the play delves into love, sacrifice, and dignity amidst injustice, promising to spark lasting conversations about race and resilience.

Norat-Phillips also feels that the play speaks directly to our recent history, adding,

“The themes of this play, which are racial hatred, and community ostracization, and a pandemic that is killing people by the thousands, all converging at the same time, reminded me vividly about what we have endured in the very recent past here in the United States. I talked to people about the show, and I said, ‘I think it’s a reminder for me of how far we haven’t come as a nation.’ The issues are still prevalent, rampant, worse than they’ve been in so long, as it relates to race relations in this country. And then of course, we survived COVID, and we still live with COVID, which slaughtered thousands of people. There were just these consistent storylines, and I thought ‘This is as relevant today as it was in 1966 when [Childress] wrote it, as it was in 1918, which is the period of time that she was writing about.’”

Sarah Norat-Phillips legacy has been deeply impactful. You can see the company’s ensemble and its evolution over the past 45 years in the numerous photos from past productions that hang on the walls of the lobby, which visitors can view before heading into the theater.  

Lorna C. Hill

Leadership transitions can be very difficult times for any organization. However, Ujima has faced more than their share of challenges, a transition to a new home in spring of 2019, the 2020 passing of the incomparable Lorna Hill, to the global pandemic that shut down stages for much of that early period. There’s little doubt that Sarah Norat-Phillips efforts over the past four years have strengthened the theater’s foundation and helped to ensure the company’s stability. 

Brian Brown, Ujima’s current managing director had this to say about Sarah and the new transition,

“Similar to Lorna, Sarah possesses an exceptional eye for excellence and consistently encourages our Ujima community to break free from conventional thinking, especially during challenging and uncomfortable situations. Constantly asking us to ask ourselves the question “What have you done for Ujima today?” Sarah’s dedication to preserving the integrity of Ujima and ensuring the continuity of our vital work is a true testament of love.  We are deeply appreciative of her wisdom and steady guidance, which has been invaluable in nurturing and mentoring emerging talents like myself and the entire Ujima team. Her faith in our growing abilities have empowered our new staff members and artists with the confidence to pave the way for a sustainable and prosperous future.”

As she looks to her departure as interim Artistic Director at the end of the season, and her much-earned retirement, her contributions as an administrator, producer, and director have not gone unnoticed. 

When asked what she would hope for the future of Ujima Theatre Company, she says she hopes the groundwork laid will empower the next generation of artists to propel Ujima Theater to greater heights, “What Ujima needs is for more people to come, for more people to support, and for more people to donate. You know, for people to think about it as an important community resource, and that’s an important part of Ujima’s legacy,” adding,

I think it’s part of why this company has continued to exist, because we see ourselves as a Community resource. We do work that is reflective of people, and voices that are not seen, and not heard, and and we advocate for that. We do it unabashedly. It’s who we are. It’s why we do what we do. And I think the community in general sees the value of that. We’ve got a very talented young core of artists who are now in key positions in the theater company. And so it’s from an internalized basis, that it’s all set to go for another 30 years, as long as the finances continue to be there to support it.


WNY Soundstage
Sarah Norat-Phillips’ farewell season, Ujima Theatre’s enduring 45 year legacy, and the broader rediscovery of playwright Alice Childress



Download file | Play in new window | Duration: 00:29:02 | Recorded on May 8, 2024

Alice Childress’ Wedding Band runs May 9 – 19, 2024, at the Lorna C. Hill Theater, with shows on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 7:30 PM and Sunday at 4:00 PM with an added matinee on Saturday, May 11 at 2:00 PM. Tickets are available here.  

The post Ujima’s ‘Wedding Band’ is a Powerful Look at Race, Love, and Resilience (Podcast Included) appeared first on Buffalo Rising.

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