Thursday, February 13, 2014

World Premiere of "Witness Uganda" at The American Repertory Theater - A Transforming and Transporting Night At The Theater

 Griffin Matthews and the cast of 'Witness Uganda.'

For many months, the buzz has been strong among those in the Boston/Cambridge and New York theater communities about the much-anticipated "Witness Uganda."  Last night at the A.R.T.'s Loeb Theater, Artistic Director Diane Paulus presented the World Premiere of this seminal and deeply moving work by the creative team of Matt Gould and Griffin Matthews.

Fasten your seat belts, readers of The White Rhino Report, for this show evoked in me a great deal of thought and emotion, and I want to share these things in depth with you as I review the show that had last evening's audience weeping in catharsis and shouting and clapping in joy.

What is "Witness Uganda"?

  • It is a deeply moving tale based upon Griffin Matthews' real life experiences of traveling to Uganda to save the world, and finding himself changed and resurrected.
  • It is a celebration of life and hope
  • It is a cautionary tale for all those who would seek to reach out and make a difference - to those who would seek to teach but in truth need to be taught.
  • It is a heart-felt examination of the prejudices we harbor and the consequences of those fears and judgments.
  • It is a joyous melange of music with roots in Africa, hip hop, rap, jazz and Black Gospel
  • It is a hymn to what is possible in a world that throws up barriers to dreaming
  • It is an examination of how we as people treat those who are different from us - gay or straight, black or white, light black or darker black, skinny or full-bodied.
  • It is a show that shines a light on the unintended consequences of well-meaning Americans who travel to Africa - or Haiti or Southeast Asia - and who inadvertently trample on the invisible nuances of the host culture they profess to want to help.
  • It is a Broadway-bound work of art that began as an infomercial for UgandaProject, the non-profit that Griffin began when he saw the need to educate his orphaned friends in Uganda. (When I say "Broadway-bound," this is a personal prediction and hope on my part, and not an official announcement by the producers!)
  • It is a wondrous collaboration of dozens of people from Uganda to New York to Cambridge who have born witness to the power of Griffin's story and have believed in the need to tell the tale to as broad an audience as possible.
  • It is a spiritual experience that involves worship and praise and crying to God for help
  • It is a celebration of community - whether that community be a congregation in NYC, a gaggle of orphaned street urchins in Kampala or a Cambridge audience composed of erstwhile strangers who have been thrown together for two hours to share a common experience of transformation  and transport.
  • It is an examination of the kinds of personal prisons that confine us and from which we need to find escape.
  • It is a show makes visible human beings who are often invisible to us.  They are worthy of our notice.
I have come to believe that a work of art is a loop that cannot be closed until that work of art has been presented to an audience and the audience responds in a personal way.  This is true of a painting, a song, a film, a dance, a symphony or a play.  The artist(s) creates, and then presents; they "Put It All On The Line" Then the audience processes what they have seen or heard or thought or felt.  The loop is complete when the audience member has this internal dialogue: "What did I just experience?  What does it say about my life or my view of the world?  What do I feel?  What new thoughts are dancing in my head?  Should I be moved to action or simply reflection?"  It was clear to me as I interacted with other audience members at the party after the performance that this internal  dialogue was taking place in many of our minds and hearts and souls.

This is a remarkable work of art in many dimensions.  Griffin Matthews tells his own story, buttressed by the stirring music and lyrics and orchestrations of his partner, Matt Gould.  Griffin the actor and Griffin the protagonist stand before us fully clothed and yet naked and transparent.  It is this transparency and lack of rancor as he tells his tale that makes this play such a moving and empathetic work of art.  Griffin has experienced much rejection as his journey through life has taken him from New York to Uganda and back many times.  It was his rejection by his pastor over his revelation that he is gay that was the catalyst for him  to go to Africa - to find himself and set down some roots for his wounded and deracinated self.  Arriving in Uganda, he is initially rejected for being "white," and then for not following the rules of the mission he came to serve as a volunteer.  He is robbed and assaulted by - and then "adopted" by - a group of orphans who beg him to teach them.  He discovers the villainy and duplicity of the "Pastor Jim," and strikes off on his own to try to make a difference in the lives of his new Ugandan family.  He is lied to by his Ugandan "brother" Jacob, who claims to have been kidnapped.  This kidnapping ruse sets in motion a frantic fundraising effort and trek back to Uganda to attempt to rescue Jacob.  The results are both heart-rending and revealing.

The Market. Photo:

Let me point out some of the individual aspects of this musical that make it such a compelling work of musical theater:
  • The set by Tom Pye interacts with the projections of Peter Nigrini, the lighting designed by Maruti Evans, the Sound Design of Jonathan Deans and the costumes designed by ESosa to create a colorful and evocative "home" where the characters live and tell their stories.  
  • The choreography of Darrell Grand Moultrie reinforces the power of the music, conducted by Matt Gould from the keyboard with great elan and panache, and under the leadership of Musical Director Remy Kurs.
  • The cast is a vibrant and talented collection of Equity actors who bring not only amazing vocal, dramatic and dancing talent to this stage, but inject personal passion that matches that of the creative team.
  • Among the cast, several stand out and need to be called out individually:
    • I have already mentioned Griffin Matthews, who is the heart and soul of the story and of Uganda Project that has sprouted from the soil of his personal pilgrimage.  His courage and artistry are praiseworthy and humbling to behold.
    • Michael Luwoye plays the conflicted Jacob with just the right combination of vulnerability and defiance.
    • Adeole Role is chilling in the role of Jacob's big sister, Joy.  The arc of her character is a highlight of this story, as it becomes clear why she needs her rigidity to hold herself and her family together in the face of abuse and deep loss.  She teaches Griffin some of his most important lessons of his young life.
    • Emma Hunton is rock solid as Griffin's American friend, confidant and gadfly.  Her soulful voice resonates as she expresses her hopes and then frustrations as her musical career is sidetracked to help Griffin launch UgandaProject.
    • Nicolette Robinson is Eden, one of Griffin's students in his impromptu "street academy." Her singing voice is as deeply touching as her character is shallow, begging Griffin via e-mail for money to have her hair braided and to buy hair extensions!
    •  Kristolyn Lloyd is Grace, another of the students.  She brings a delightful mixture of coy flirtatiousness and gritty spunk to her relationship with Griffin.
    • Jamar Williams is an impish Ibrahim.  He has a rakish charm and stage presence that is both mesmerizing and amusing.
    • Tyrone Davis, Jr. is strong and serious Ronny who dreams of becoming a doctor.  His honest heart-to-heart talk with Griffin about "bringing us a mother" is a pivotal and a signal moment in the story.
    • Among the ensemble, Melody Betts is an anchor.  Her Gospel voice soars and then climbs even higher and louder as she evokes the earth mother of the Ugandan community. 
    • Roderick Covington, Kevin Curtis, Latrisa  Harper, Aisha Jackson and Jamard Richardson round out the ensemble, playing members of the the village or NYC congregation.  Their ensemble singing and dancing raises the roof of the Loeb and raises the bar for ensemble artists.
The cast of 'Witness Uganda.'

  • Diane Paulus' direction is impeccable, as I have come to expect from her visionary work.  I was particularly taken by her decision to use an ascending platform to evoke a hill overlooking Kampala and Lake Victoria.  The beauty of the projections of the sky and land stands in stark contrast to the bleakness of the lives that the Ugandan orphans live.  The use of rain and lightening and thunder are leitmotifs that appear whenever Griffin or his comrades face a difficult decision, danger or fork in the road.  Storm clouds often roil and hover in the background making us wonder what crisis is about to precipitate.
  • The band is superb - Matt Gould, Brina Li, Andrew Griffin, Nathan V.Terry, Charlie Chronopoulos, Jonny Morrow and Senfuab Stoney create an ocean of sound that ebbs and flows and upon which the narrative sails.
  • One of the most moving moments of the evening occurred when the focus was placed on seeing what some of the original group of students are now doing - doctor, nurse, orphanage director.  It was a real time reminder of the possibility of our efforts together to "Resurrect People."
I must add two personal notes to conclude this piece.

In the 1970's, I helped  to run a mission hospital in the mountains of Haiti.,  The pictures of rural Uganda looked just like the village of Fermathe where I lived.  Many issues that Griffin describes in Uganda were present in Haiti - and I suspect are present wherever well-meaning Americans stumble in to try to help those in a less developed or affluent culture.  So my reaction to this story is deeply personal, and I am grateful to Griffin and Matt for telling a story that I can relate to so profoundly.

Seeing this show one time in not sufficient.  I plan to return to the A.R.T. several more times during the run of this show, which must end on March 16.  Let me know if you would like to join me for a performance, and we can arrange together to get tickets.  But act quickly.  This is a show for which tickets will be in high demand. 

Finally, please check out the website for UgandaProject and consider making a contribution and standing with Griffin and his team to provide education  for brothers and sisters from the streets of Kampala.

For tickets, follow this link:



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Creative team
byMatt Gould and Griffin Matthews
Directed byDiane Paulus
ChoreographyDarrell Grand Moultrie
Set DesignTom Pye
Costume DesignESosa
Lighting DesignMaruti Evans
Sound DesignJonathan Deans
Projection DesignPeter Nigrini
Music DirectorRemy Kurs
Associate DirectorShira Milikowsky
CastingStephen Kopel, C.S.A.
Production Stage ManagerCarolyn Boyd
Cast (in order of speaking)
GriffinGriffin Matthews
JacobMichael Luwoye
JoyAdeola Role
RyanEmma Hunton
EdenNicolette Robinson
GraceKristolyn Lloyd
IbrahimJamar Williams
RonnyTyrone Davis, Jr.
EnsembleMelody BettsRodrick CovingtonKevin Curtis,LaTrisa HarperAisha JacksonJamard Richardson
Conductor/Keyboard 1Matt Gould
Keyboard 2Brian Li
ViolaAndrew Griffin
DrummerNathan V. Terry
GuitarCharlie Chronopoulos
BassJonny Morrow
PercussionSenfuab Stoney
Additional staff
Assistant Stage ManagerStephanie M. Holmes
Assistant DirectorMia Walker
Assistant ChoreographerAmy Hall Garner
Producing AssociateJared Fine
Wig and Hair DesignLeah Loukas
Associate Costume DesignDede Ayite
Assistant Lighting DesignTsubasa Kamei
Associate Projection DesignerDavid Bengali
Video SupervisorDerek Wiles
Synth Programming AssistantBrian Li
DramaturgyRyan McKittrick, Ashley Melone,
Marissa L. Friedman, Christian Ronald
Dialect CoachCharlotte Fleck
Assistant Vocal CoachAshleigh Reade
CopyistAndrew Griffin
Music AssistantLuke Anderson
Music InternKhiyon Hursey
Producing AssistantsAllison Grant, Courtney Ziegler
Assistant to Matt Gould and Griffin MatthewsGreg Nobile
Additional Orchestrations and Vocal Arrangements
Andrew Griffin, Remy Kurs, Nathan Terry
Electronic Music Design
Jeff Marder
Dance Captain
LaTrisa Harper*

Understudies never substitute for listed players unless a specific announcement is made at the time of the performance.
For Griffin: TYRONE DAVIS, JR.*; for Griffin and Ensemble: TYRICK WILTEZ JONES*; for Joy and Ensemble: MARTHA BOLES; for Jacob: RODRICK COVINGTON*; for Ryan: LAUREN DOUCETTE; for Grace and Eden: AISHA JACKSON*; for Ronny and Ibrahim: KEVIN CURTIS*

Producing: Mark Mauriello ‘15
Playwriting: Brenna McDuffie ‘15 ^
Directing: Lily Glimcher ‘14
Directing: Susanna Wolk ‘14
Music: Madeline Smith ‘14
Choreography: Megan Murdock ‘14 ^
Stage Management: Jumai Yusuf ‘16
Stage Management: Kyra Atekwana ‘14
Marketing Selena: Kim ‘15 ^
(^) Spring 2014 Harvard Arts and Museums Fellow, funded with support from the Office of Career Services

Originally developed at Vineyard Arts Project, co-produced by Brooke Hardman and Ashley Melone
Rehearsed at the New 42nd Street Studios and the Loeb Drama Center

Susan Abbott; ASCAP; Ildiko Sragli and Barry Appelman; Hasan Askari; The Bishop Family; Clint Bond; Katie Boeck; Jane Bolster and the Richard Rodgers committee; Anne Marie Bookwalter; Dillon Bustin; Rev. Christine Nakyeyune Busuulwa; John Buzzetti; Keith Caggiano; Vanessa Coakley; Susan Cook; Brett Cramp; Virginia Dajani; Laurie DeMarco; Robin Lafoley and Mitchell Dong; Michael Eder; Deb Fowler; Molly Gachignard; Maria Giarrizzo; Erica Glenn; The Gould Family; The Griffin Family; David Hempton; Tim Sanford, Kent Nicholson and all at Playwrights Horizons; Brenna St. George Jones; Edward Jones; Dean Kay; Annie Kee; Kathryn Kozlark; Joan Lader; Timothy Lappin; Timothy Longman; Mary MacLeod; Sam Martinborough; Timothy McCarthy; Kevin McCollum; Lucas McMahon; Ashley Melone; Kerry Melone; Cameron Mizell; Andrea Moore; Anne Muyanga; Greg Nobile; Leslie Odom, Jr.; The Paris Family; Julia Putnam; Juanita Rodrigues; Michael Rose; Amy Rosenblum; Jimmy Ryan; Kyle Scatliffe; Stephen Schwartz; Molly Shoemaker; Amy Slaughter; Shannan Smith; Abigail Spencer; Summit Series; Michael Taglieri; Maura Tighe; Nondumiso Tembe; Wilson Torres; the students of UgandaProject; Zurin Villanueva; Jonathan L. Walton; Lyle Warner; Elissa Weinzimmer; Elizabeth Woodbury; Jeanne Smith and Pam Young
Digico; d&b audiotechnik; Meyer Sound; Sound Associates

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