American Repertory Theater, Boston
“Inspired by true events” does not always equal believability. In “Witness Uganda,” the rigorous but flawed new musical at Boston’s American Repertory Theater, true events are only the beginning. Despite its being, on the surface, an often white-hot evening, wondrously directed by Diane Paulus, its undercoating shows signs of hesitation and fear.
That this should happen is freakish, since the musical’s narrator, Griffin Matthews, is also its co-author (with Matt Gould) and the tale is, more or less, about his profound experiences in that titular African land. Matthews is a struggling New York actor, a gay African-American who’s been outed by a member of his church choir. Angry and yearning for adventure, he volunteers to help orphans in Uganda, where he encounters fraud and deception by the cruel, crooked pastor in charge of the volunteer operation.
Matthews, like other heroic figures, goes to the mountaintop, there to encounter a quartet of neglected teens unable to attend school because they have no money. He undertakes to teach them about the world, with an eye towards encouraging their ambitions.
They, in turn, teach him a dose of pragmatism. ”If you want a banana to fall on you,” they tell him, “don’t sit under the avocado tree.” Spurred, Matthews forms the non-profit Uganda Project, devoted to getting and keeping kids in school.
There’s a fly in the altruistic ointment, however, and this is where the evening goes awry. One young man he meets, Jacob, is under the thumb of his caring but tough sister. Yet Jacob, too, yearns to learn and Matthews is eager to help.
Hinted at is sexual tension between the two. Matthews is obviously in love with Jacob who turns out to be both needy and manipulative. The former’s eyes are eventually opened but this personal narrative not only insinuates itself into the evening, it remains unfulfilled. By contrast, establishing the children’s school becomes more tract than drama. The drama is in Jacob.
When Griffin takes his friend Donna on a $3,000 plane ride to Africa to find the supposedly kidnapped Jacob, he’s personally, irresponsibly using money donated for the school. It’s an explosive turn whose impact is glossed over, as are Uganda’s vicious anti-gay laws, the influence of evangelicals and the prevalence of AIDS. These hang, sword-like, over everything else.
To his credit, Matthews lets events speak for themselves, thus avoiding preachiness. But insight is sacrificed. No one’s looking for neon signs saying “Meaning” nor expects coverage of all of Uganda’s problems. Still, not uniting disparate parts gives the appearance of shallowness. Too many avenues are unexplored.
None of this takes away from the sheer effectiveness of the production. This is an evening of powerful songs and dances, choreographed by Darrell Grand Moultrie and directed by Paulus with memorable theatricality. The evening races along, its dialogue scenes punctuated by stirring musical moments.
The performers are outstanding. With Matthews as sympathetic guide, we’re introduced to Michael Luwoye’s poignant Jacob, Adeola Role’s fiercely protective Joy, Emma Hunton’s conflicted Ryan and others in the vivacious cast.
It’s a class-A production, from Tom Pye’s set design, to Maruti Evans’ lighting, Esosa’s costumes, Jonathan Deans’ sound and Peter Nigrini’s beautiful projections. Combining Western and African traditions in both song and story, “Witness Uganda” is both accessible and affecting. It may have a future though, at this point, it’s one circumscribed by cautiousness.
--David A. Rosenberg
Feb. 25, 2014