Monday, February 24, 2014

Called Back To The Witness Stand - A Second Look at "Witness Uganda" at the A.R.T.

Griffin Mathews
Witness Uganda Cast

It is not unusual for me to return to see a show more than once - especially if that show has grabbed me in some way, causing me to think and to feel in significant ways.  It is quite unusual, however, for me to choose to write a follow-up Blog post based on those subsequent viewings of the show,  I have done this in the past with "Pippin" and with "Les Miserables."  I am choosing to do it now with "Witness Uganda," which should tell readers of The White Rhino Report the high esteem in which I hold this show and its creators.

When I returned to the A.R.T. this past weekend to see "Witness Uganda" for a second and third time, I had two aims in mind:

1) I brought with me friends whom I knew would benefit from seeing the show.
2) I wanted a chance to let the show's message and dramatic arc flow over me again to see what additional insights I might glean from Griffin Matthew's story of his still-unfolding pilgrimage to find his place in the world.

My friends loved the show and were deeply moved by it.

I saw several dimensions of the story that I had glossed over in my first viewing.  I share these new insights with you as an addendum to my original review which you can access through this link:

Blog review of Witness Uganda

My first observation has to do with the nature of the story telling that Griffin Mathews and Matt Gould have created in their collaboration with Diane Paulus and many others.  On the one hand, the story is very specific: a particular person in particular places at a particular time dealing with very particular circumstances.  On the other hand, a sentient and observant audience member is often prompted to say: "Wait; this is partly my story.  I, too, am trying to figure out where I fit in this messed up world, and how I can make a difference."  So they have also crafted a story with universal appeal.

Matt Gould and Griffin Matthews
WBUR Studios

In a sense, they have handed us, the audience, two kinds of lenses through which to peer.  At one level the story functions as a microscope, peering deeply into Griffin's life - and inviting us to conduct the same in depth internal examination of our own lives and souls.  At another level, they offer a telescope, allowing us to look at the broader world - of Uganda and beyond.  Equipped with these twin tools, the audience member is invited through the magic of this story to simultaneously look inward and outward.  With new insights, we can then ask: "With this new understanding of myself and the world I inhabit, what actions should I be taking to find my place in the world and to move toward making it a better world?"

One of the most moving moments in the show is the scene in which Griffin swallows his pride and returns to a church that had rejected him in order to ask for help in rescuing Jacob, whom he believes has been kidnapped in Uganda.  As the choir sings a rollicking version of "Be The Light" - in English and in Luganda - Griffin learns that the church has given generously in an impromptu offering.  The show, in essence, is inviting each of us to find a way to "Be The Light."

One additional new insight came when I considered the role of Pastor Jim.  His presence lurks and hovers over almost every scene in the play. He misled Griffin and countless other volunteers who paid money to travel to Uganda to build schools for orphans.  As soon as they left, Pastor Jim sold the building and pocketed the money.  No actor plays the role of Jim;  he is a phantom who exists in the mind of each audience member as we hear him and his actions described.  I applaud this artistic choice.  In a sense, the artists are "painting" using negative space very wisely.  Were Jim to appear on stage, the character would be a lighting rod for audience hatred and recrimination.  As a phantom, Jim exists differently in the mind of each individual audience member, and the sense of evil is diffused, allowing the overwhelming spirit of the show to be one of wonder, exploration, learning, forgiveness and humility, rather than of hatred or of recrimination.  As artists, Griffin and Matt are in good company, for Anton Chekhov was noted for his use of off-stage action and off-stage characters to advance the narratives of his dramas.

Finally, allow me to add that many of the lessons that Griffin has learned and is continuing to learn are discussed in a ground-breaking book, "When Helping Hurts - How To Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting The Poor Or Yourself."  The book helps those from a developed nation who hope to travel to a developing country to be aware of the inadvertent mistakes we can make out of a desire to help. My review of this book can be accessed through this link:

White Rhino Report Review of "When Helping Hurts"

FYI - "Witness Uganda" will play through March 16 at A.R.T.  Many performances are already sold out.  When a show is sold out, the box office will sell up to 20 standing room tickets the day of the show, beginning at 12:00 - $20 for adults; $15 for students with student ID.

American Repertory Theater Witness Uganda Website

I bear witness to the fact that "Witness Uganda" is a show you do not want to miss.  And having witnessed the show yourself, you will never be the same.

Enjoy! And be the light!


No comments: