Theatre Mirror Reviews-"Witness Uganda"

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note: entire contents copyright 2014 by Sheila Barth

"Witness Uganda"

A Review By Sheila Barth

The headlines blast with ugly reports of violent attacks on gays in Africa. In Kampala, Uganda, President Yoweri Musuveni is signing a bill into law that imposes life imprisonment for “some homosexual acts,” to protect Ugandans from social deviants. Musuveni and legislators based their decision on a report by “medical experts” saying “homosexuality is not genetic, but a social behavior”.

 In Abuja, Senegal, the capital of Nigeria, weapon-wielding mobs attacked gays in a neighborhood, beating them, while shouting they were “cleansing the community of gays”. A mob dragged four victims to the police station, where the police beat and insulted them further. This attack followed the news that President Goodluck Jonathan has prescribed prison sentences of up to 14 years for gay people.

In American Repertory Theater’s brilliantly performed production of composer Matt Gould and Griffin Matthews’ musical, “Witness Uganda,”  Africa’s widespread anti-homosexual attitude, superficially blamed on fear of spreading AIDS, is an underlying theme, but not the main point. The show’s a vibrant, hard-hitting take on exploitation of the western world’s benevolent efforts to build, fund, and create schools and better living conditions, especially for poor and orphaned children, who are locked into a desperate existence.

The fact that co-creator Griffin Matthews,32, is gay and went to Uganda in 2005 as a volunteer to work with orphans in Uganda, exposes a two-prong problem that contrasts real situations in Africa and do-good Americans‘ unawareness of where their donated food, money, goods, and services are used. Every performance ends with an “Act III,” or 20-minute discussion, in which theatergoers gain additional insight. On specific dates and performances, experts and scholars reflect on the show’s themes and their own related research and work.    

Matthews sensitively portrays himself in this autobiographically-based show, and Gould, 34, provides sensational musical supervision and accompaniment on keyboard, fusing pulsating African rhythm and beats and American-western sounds. 

This entire cast, ensemble, orchestra and crew are superlative.

  Based on Matthews‘ real-life experiences and Gould’s Peace Corps work in Mauritania, West Africa, the play explores Matthews’ leaving Brooklyn, NY, and his acting career to help children in Uganda, after being kicked out of his church choir because he’s gay. He arrives gung-ho, eager to work, but is quickly discouraged by an embittered aid worker misnamed Joy (Adeola Role).

   Prestigious choreographer Darrell Grand Moultrie went to South Africa to teach ballet/ choreography, observed and learned tribal dance from the Luweero District, where some of the play takes place. In fact, several in the cast have worked, volunteered, or lived in Africa, adding to the play’s authenticity. Garbed in ESosa’s traditional-looking costumes, Melody Betts, who unleashes her full vocal power in African-inspired and gospel numbers, while she and the ensemble  provide rousing interludes throughout the musical. Video designer Peter Nigrini’s eye-catching, scenic projections on a huge background screen, coupled with designer Tom Pye’s set, Maruti Evan’s lighting, designer Jonathan Deans’ battery of sounds and music director Remy Kurs and Co. take us from Brooklyn to tin-roofed shacks and crowded market streets in Uganda; sweeping verdant hills and valleys, to world wondrous Lake Victoria Falls. Thunderous, ominous gray clouds contrasted by cerulean blue skies hover over the alleged relief compound run by unseen, exploitive Christian cleric Pastor Jim, who,indeed, builds schools funded by Western relief funds, but not for Ugandan poor and orphaned children. He sells the buildings as prime real estate and pockets the money, while the orphans wishing to attend school must pay tuition, which they lack.  

Likable street-roaming teen-agers Ronny (Tyrone Davis Jr.); Ibrahim (Jamar Williams); vivacious, western wannabe, Grace (Kristolyn Lloyd); sensible  Eden (Nicolete Robinson); and meek, abused manservant, Jacob (Michael Luwoye) buck their hopeless system by running to the hills, and an abandoned school shack, to learn life lessons from Matthews.  “Thank you for telling me, but don’t tell anyone else,” two students later tell Matthews, when he reveals he’s gay. 

Meanwhile, Matthews’ aspiring singer-musician friend, Ryan, (Emma Hunter), becomes disappointed by her negative auditions, and joins his efforts in Africa. 

The two return to New York, on a tuition fundraising circuit to help their students finish their education. The show closes with a resounding “Njaluangula” (I Will Rise) - Resurrect.

By the way, Matthews and Gould are still involved in their non-profit Project Uganda, raising tuition money for children there.       

"Witness Uganda"
@ Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle Street, CAMBRIDGE MA

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide