ART's "Witness Uganda": A Most Happy "Fela!"

Griffin Matthews in "Witness Uganda"
(photo: Gretjen Helene)

Any resemblance between the hit Broadway musical “The Book of Mormon” and ART‘s current production of the new musical “Witness Uganda” is purely geographical. What this work does recall is the musical “Fela!”, the story of Nigerian singer Fela Kuti, in its ebullient, wondrous song and dance. "Witness", it should be understood, is not a noun but a verb, as in the action of witnessing a community. The winner of the 2012 prestigious Richard Rodgers Award for Musical Theater, it is the collaborative effort of two young artists, Matt Gould (who conducts and plays keyboard) and Griffin Matthews, who stars in this musical based on their personal experiences. They are the co-creators of the intensely vital book, music and lyrics, as well as the spirit behind their non-profit Uganda Project. Here presented in its world premiere and masterfully directed by Diane Paulus, it tells the story of an African-American actor, tired of pounding the pavement in New York, who volunteers to go to Uganda to help build a village school just outside the capital city of Kampala. He foresees it as the “trip of a lifetime”, and so it proves, but not in the way he expects.

It is 2005, and the idealistic Griffin (Matthews), disillusioned by his encounter with the corruption of the missionary purportedly building the school, stops at the side of a road to speak with a group of teenagers who turn out to be destitute orphans devoid of hope. They long to be able to attend university, but face the reality that education in Uganda, at all levels, is not free. Sitting on a hill, described by them as their “school, which is failing (them)”, Griffin has an epiphany and decides to try to help them realize their dreams. The youngsters call him “muzungu” (meaning “a white person, at least in intent”). What he discovers is that changing the world is more difficult than he first anticipated. Gradually he comes to appreciate the real complexities encountered in the process of trying to help others. As Choreographer Darrell Grand Moultrie, with his own history of teaching dance in South Africa, has put it, “change is possible, but only if you are open to failure”. The real-life Matthews and Gould have condensed the story from eight years into two years, with fabulous music that blends unusual African rhythms with the more familiar rhythms of contemporary Western music. There are also the back stories about Matthews being rejected from his church choir in New York because he came out to them as gay, and the stark reality that homosexual activity is illegal in Uganda. As the protagonist of this play, he is extraordinary. There is also great work by the rest of the cast, in the roles of Jacob (Michael Luwoye), Joy (Adeola Role), Ryan (Emma Hunton), Eden (Nicolette Robinson), Grace (Kristolyn Lloyd), Ibrahim (Jamar Williams) and Ronny (Tyrone Davis, Jr.). The terrific ensemble includes Melody Betts, Rodrick Covington, Kevin Curtis, Latrisa Harper, Aisha Jackson, and Jamard Richardson. Matthews is a theatrical dynamo both as singer and storyteller, and Luwoye and Role are outstanding. Of this multi-talented group, all but one (Role) are making their ART debuts.

In real life, Matthews and Gould understand that to create a musical, as Paulus puts it, “it takes a village”. Their creation is enhanced by Moultrie’s terrific choreography (inspired by Tribal dances from the Luweero District where the play takes place), as well as the marvelous Set Design by Tom Pye, Esosa’s colorful Costume Design, atmospheric Lighting Design by Maruti Evans, magically complex Sound Design by Jonathan Deans, moving Music Direction by Remy Kurs and, most especially, Projection Design by Peter Nigrini, (the creator of projection design for the aforementioned “Fela!“), the most astounding use of this underappreciated art for which there should be a Tony category (and which, if there’s any justice in this world, Nigrini will own). The seven piece band led by Gould is a fabulous onstage presence. At the center of this play, of course, are the contributions of Gould and Matthews, who learned the hard way where to focus their energy, as exemplified by the Ugandan axiom: “If you wish to have a banana, do not stand under an avocado tree.” They also learned to “stop teaching and start listening”, and that “God never tells you the whole story of your life, only what you can take.” Matthews compares his revelation to the elephants his students had never seen before he took them to a game preserve to see them: “It was here and I didn’t see it.” He came to change the world, and as is true with many before him, was changed by it; he’s taught by his students to endure, in order to get the gift lying in store for him.

This work, a gift lying in store for fortunate theatregoers, revolves around the fundamental American impulse to help and the obstacles encountered. Matthews and Gould have chosen the musical form to convey this. As Matthews has said, singing is crying, and experiencing musical theater is like going to church, synagogue or mosque, in which you witness your community. Here there is a lot of singing, and a good deal of crying, but in the end there is mostly profound inspiration and exhilarating joy. Many who have witnessed this play have said “this is my story”. At the end of the work, the youngsters exclaim that they all “will rise”, and each of them is someone whom “the world should not miss”. The same should be said for “Witness Uganda”.

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