Malcolm Beckett ’16 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
Created by Matt Gould and Griffin Matthews, and directed by the American Repertory Theater’s (ART) artistic director Diane Paulus, Witness Uganda is a breath of fresh air for musical theater.
Playing at the ART until March 16, the play is a retelling of Griffin Matthews’ experiences as an aid worker in Uganda. The musical itself serves as a testament to the idea that there is no such thing as “just art.” Instead, Witness Uganda seems to say that art has the power (maybe even responsibility) to provoke thought, challenge ideas, and provide insight. But it never loses sight of its genre or its audience, delving into complexity with the enthusiasm and liveliness expected from a musical.
When Griffin (Griffin Matthews), a gay African American actor, travels to Uganda on a service trip, he expects to find himself. He shortly realizes how problematic his ideas of international aid are when he befriends Jacob (Michael Luwoye). Jacob works at the unseen Pastor Jim’s compound performing household chores for Joy (Adeola Role) who runs the service program in Jim’s absence.
Griffin is made uneasy when Jacob reveals that he is unpaid, and instead works for the promise of an education at one of the schools the aid workers built. After meeting and befriending a gang of village orphans, leader Grace (Kristolyn Lloyd) and her friends, the sensible Ronny (Tyron Davis Jr.), optimistic Eden (Nicolette Robinson), and rowdy Ibrahim (Jamar Williams), Griffin leaves Pastor Jim’s program (but not his compound), and becomes an informal teacher to the orphans and Jacob in the village’s abandoned library.
Exuberant and larger than life, Witness Uganda’s music and choreography blends traditional musical theater forms with African styles. Co-creators and composers Matt Gould and Griffin Matthews bring a sense of vitality to the score, but never to the detriment of the serious emotions in the play. The music of Witness Uganda is best in the full-cast songs, where the ensemble shines. Likewise, Darrell Grand Moultrie’s choreography highlights the talents of the play’s ensemble. Most impressive though is the choreography which is clearly used as a means of developing character, making it a joy to watch Griffin’s dance style change as his attitude does.
Witness Uganda relies on deceptively simple staging, but the cast makes use of everything they have. Impressively, the play has six distinct and easily distinguished locations split between two countries. Small props and easily moved furniture signal where each scene takes place, along with a set of projection screens employed for everything from showing the destruction of a building to exploring characters’ imaginations. The stage itself rises to create a truly memorable image of the orphan gang’s favorite hill. With relatively little on stage at any given time, movement through empty space becomes more important, adding to the play’s sense of liveliness and charm.
Musicals have long been a vehicle for depth of emotion that makes them a natural choice for addressing social issues with feeling, humor, and self-awareness. Witness Uganda is part of this tradition, the perfect culmination of theater’s ability to entertain while inspiring empathy, pointed but not preachy.
If it’s an energetic musical you’re looking for, look no further. And if you’re interested in how the U.S. sees international aid, you’re in luck. Either way, do yourself a favor and see Witness Uganda at the ART before it leaves March 16.