Witness, Uganda and musical are three strong words that most people don’t usually string together. When I heard that the A.R.T. was putting on a production that combined those words for WITNESS UGANDA’s world premier (February 4, 2014) at the Loeb Drama Center near Harvard, I was determined to find out what exactly this entailed. Prior to seeing the musical, I thought a subject as heavy as Uganda and a medium as fun as a musical would go one of two ways: 1) be uncomfortable to watch due to a lack of appropriate respect to the subject or, 2) be unlike anything I’d ever seen before, in the best way possible.
Spoiler: Thankfully it went the direction of choice number two and I’m glad it did. WITNESS UGANDA was an amazing production that debuted right in our backyard. The musical was created by college-aged Griffin Matthews, who plays himself in the production, and his best friend, Matt Gould, who wrote the musical score and plays in the pit for the show.
If having the creators involved in the performance isn’t cool enough, the cast consists of multiple people who have spent time volunteering in Africa and around the world. Besides being a group of globally conscious do-gooders, the cast is also incredibly talented: the actors sing beautiful, unique music that combines American and African sounds and phrases, and most actors play a character who ages from childhood into adulthood. Did I mention there’s also dancing?
All of these elements come together to tell the story of Griffin, a young, gay black actor who is struggling to find work in New York City after college. Griffin becomes frustrated with his life and decides to make something of himself and contribute to the world by going on a service trip to Uganda, much to the horror of his best friend and equally struggling musician, Ryan. Once in Uganda, Griffin meets children who want to learn more than they have the resources for. WITNESS UGANDA is filled with light comedic moments; upon first seeing Griffin, the spunky Grace demands he buy her a soda and then asks him to decide whether it’s more beautiful in Uganda or in New York. Each of the four main Ugandan children is full of personality and makes the production one that’s both lovable and believable. Equally lovable is the subplot of the hilarious and witty Ryan learning to accept her body; Ryan believes she isn’t getting signed to a recording label because of her weight. She and Griffin have a deep and endearing friendship that allows each to have a support system while struggling to uncover who they really are and why they matter in this world.
The young actors make this piece one that is entirely relatable to a college-aged audience. Through Griffin, Ryan and the people whom they meet in Uganda, the audience explores love, loss and identity. Some challenges are overcome, and new challenges arise, which makes for a surprisingly fast-paced, edge-of-your-seat viewing experience.
The atmosphere and design of the production provide yet another reason to see the musical. The set is technologically savvy, gorgeous and changes entirely between almost every scene. As an audience member, the world of the play is extremely accessible and very hard to leave. Some standout moments were the combination of rain and haunting vocals by the Ugandan people, a scene taking place in an airplane that was done beautifully to show the distance and countries traveled, a parallel staging of a duet while Ryan is performing in a New York café and Griffin sharing an intimate moment when talking about music in Uganda.
What started as “the worst idea [he’d] ever heard,” (Griffin’s response when Matt Gould approached him about making a musical about aid work to fundraise for their nonprofit, UgandaProject) has certainly come a long way from the infomercial design Griffin imagined for WITNESS UGANDA. In addition to a brand-new and wonderfully executed performance, Matt and Griffin are also spreading awareness about living conditions and education in Uganda. After every performance of WITNESS UGANDA, a talkback with the audience, the artists who contributed to the project and specialists in international aid and social justice, takes place under the title “Act III.” With so many students here at Boston College involved in international study and service, “Act III” is another worthwhile reason to go see WITNESS UGANDA.
Director Diane Paulus nicely summarizes the appeal of the production with her own first reaction to it: “I listened to the music and I was knocked out by the score. It sounded like nothing I had ever heard before. Then I read the script and it was like nothing I had ever read before—especially as far as musicals go. So it was really a combination of the power of the music and the subject of the story that hooked me.”
Boston College friends, take my advice and go see this musical while it’s still in Boston. WITNESS UGANDA is going places, and this production is one that’s going to matter for a long time.