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CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- The creators of "Witness Uganda," a new reality-based musical about the complexities of being an American aid worker in Africa, can hardly believe their story is finally hitting the stage.
“Nobody’s supposed to do a musical called 'Witness Uganda.' That’s the worst idea ever!”
That's how Matt Gould’s partner Griffin Matthews responded to the concept back in 2008. Now, the philanthropic theater duo say rehearsing a full-blown production with American Repertory Theater artistic director Diane Paulus is like a dream come true.
During a recent rehearsal, about a dozen colorfully-dressed singers and dancers followed Paulus’ lead. Gould — a seasoned composer, writer and director — conducted the live band. Matthews took center stage. Then, bathed in light, the 31-year-old actor started to tell his tale.
“My name is Griffin and this is my story. I went to Uganda in the summer of 2005. I didn’t know what to expect. I’d never been to Uganda. I am not Ugandan, my grandmother is from Pittsburgh. I thought I understood my place in the world until I stepped foot into a culture that I knew nothing about. Yes, my skin was the same, but our lives were completely different.”
"Witness Uganda" is largely based on Matthews’ volunteer work at an orphanage, which he quickly discovered was being run by a corrupt pastor. Then he met a group of parentless street teens and decided he had to do something to help.
“It was far more difficult than I ever expected,” Matthews recalled, explaining how in Uganda many orphans (there are more than two million in a country of an estimated 35 million people) are outcasts. Matthews and Gould started a nonprofit called the Uganda Project to pay for education for about eight kids. But after the economy tanked, they struggled to keep it alive.
“It was 2008,” Gould explained, “money was drying up, donors weren’t giving anything, our kids were starting college and our budget was going to double from $25,000 to $50,000 a year. And I said to Griffin, ‘Why don’t we write a musical about the organization?’ We’ll get all our friends and get some Broadway celebrities to do it. We’ll raise a ton of money!”
As you already know, Griffin Matthews thought that was "the worst idea ever!"
Well, it turns out others disagreed. Matthews and Gould wrote a song cycle and that’s when the musical started to grow.
“Something about the story was ringing true for people,” Gould said.
The team took their songs to people's living rooms. They toured schools to raise awareness. In November, they performed for sixth graders at the Orchard Gardens School in Boston.
"Witness Uganda" blossomed in a big way after the A.R.T. got behind the creative team. An $85,000 grant from the NEA also helps.
Gould calls their musical “a thriller” because it captures the confusion and epiphanies he and Matthews felt trying to make change in a country so dramatically different than their own.
“And I think we’ve really tried to capture that in the show,” he said. “So the audience comes in and hopefully gets to feel what it is like to be an American in Uganda trying to do the right thing, and realizing you’re not doing the right thing.”
In the musical, Matthews’ lyrics echo that idea: “Sometimes you think you’re making things better when you’re actually making them worse.”
“What attracted me to this musical is exactly that it completely defies the traditions of what you would expect from a piece of musical theater,” Diane Paulus explained in her office.
She’s developed a slew of successful musicals in Boston and New York and remembers when the "Witness Uganda" script and CD landed on her desk.
“When you’re looking at a musical, it kind of lives or dies on just the pure impact of the music."
The Tony Award-winning director said the "Witness Uganda" score was unlike anything she’d heard before.
“And then I read the script and I thought, OK, there’s never been a musical about aid workers in Africa — except maybe 'Book of Mormon,' if you include the Mormons in that category,” Paulus said, laughing. “Suffice it to say, this is not 'Book of Mormon.'”
"Witness Uganda" asks tough questions, is timely and is engaging new audiences, according to Paulus, which fits into the A.R.T.’s mission. She said people from other aid organizations have been calling the theater.
Anne Muyanga runs the Global Village Children's Project in Waltham, which has one of the largest Ugandan populations outside of Africa. She also helped Mathews and Gould with the Lugandan language in the script and believes they came up with a brilliant outreach concept.
“You know, the fact that they are theater actors and they found the best way to use their talents to put on something exciting, and then in the process further their cause,” she said.
Muyanga grew up in Uganda and has been in the U.S. for 15 years. Getting the word out about the dire situation over there is a constant challenge, and she calls the creative team brave because “one, they’re doing something in the country with the large population of orphans, and two, they’re willing to tackle some serious issues that we’re dealing with right now."
Issues such as Uganda’s devastating AIDS epidemic and the rampant homophobia in the country (a controversial bill was recently passed that makes homosexuality a crime punishable by life in prison).
The musical also questions the motivations of some aid workers. Thirty-year-old actress Adeola Role plays Joy Mukasa, a character who works at the orphanage to survive. One of her monologues speaks to that frustration.
“They come to Uganda because it makes them feel like they have seen our poverty and held our children, but I know that it is because they are selfish. They take a picture but do they give it? Do they send it? No, because they have it and they are satisfied. So I give them what they want for the sake of filling our libraries with their books and our bellies with their money, but I can’t love them.”
As it turns out, this actress is connecting personally to the musical. Her mother emigrated to the U.S. from Nigeria with two young children and no money. Role said it’s exciting to be in a show that she really believes in.
Creators Matt Gould and Griffin Matthews admitted they’re concerned about "Witness Uganda" ringing true with the kids they sponsor in Africa. They’ve introduced them to the cast via Skype and Gould sent a picture of a "Witness Uganda" advertisement he saw on a bus in Cambridge.
“And they were like, ‘You finally made it Matt!’" Gould recalled, laughing."They know it’s happening, and one day, God willing, they’ll be here to see it.”
For now, though, Gould and Matthews are just happy the little show they dreamed up five years ago is the reason they’re able to keep their Ugandan kids in school.
Correction: An earlier version of this report incorrectly said Adeola Role's mother immigrated from Uganda; she immigrated from Nigeria. We regret the error.