Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Review: WITNESS UGANDA, Changing the World One Life at a Time

The cast of Witness Uganda

The need for human connection runs deep in Witness Uganda, a musical by Griffin Matthews and Matt Gould based on Matthews’ real-life experiences in Uganda. At its center is the idea that we are all part of a global family – one world, one heart – connected by an invisible thread that never lets go.

That may sound a bit lofty but the musical was born out of a sincere desire to make a difference by raising money for the couple’s Uganda Project, a nonprofit organization that funds education for students in one of the world’s most impoverished countries. Proof of the good they’ve done can be seen today in the youths whose lives have been changed by their efforts. According to the organization’s website, success stories include a doctor, a nurse, several computer experts, and one young man who opened his own non-profit that supports Ugandan orphans.

It all started in 2005 when Matthews, an unemployed actor, traveled to Uganda on a volunteer mission, in part, to prevent his church community from finding out he was gay. His destination wasn’t an obvious one, given that the persecution homosexuals face in Uganda can be sizable. But, when the universe delivers an opportunity, it often does so without giving you enough time to second guess yourself. All it really requires is a leap of faith, and Matthews was ready to take it. So, Witness Uganda is his story.

Jamar Williams and the ensemble

Like any original musical, it has seen changes since its initial workshop. It premiered in 2014 at Harvard’s American Repertory Theater directed by Diane Paulus and, a year later, a revision opened Off -Broadway under the title Invisible Thread. The character of Ryan, Griffin’s best friend, has gone from being a woman, to his boyfriend at the time (Gould), and back to a woman (both times played by Emma Hunton). It has also returned to its first title for its run at The Wallis.

Two Richard Rodgers Awards and two ASCAP Awards show the promise in the piece. A striking cast (which includes Grammy nominated R&B artist Ledisi) and at least twelve producers (among them Leslie Odom, Jr., original cast member Nicolette Robinson, Cynthia Erivo, and Abigail Spencer) have also stacked the deck in the show’s favor.

Ledisi. Photo by Dan Steinberg

Yet for all its pedigree, Witness Uganda still feels like a work in progress, albeit a well-polished and fully-committed one.

Originally, Matthews played himself in the show but, with another musical based on his and Gould’s real-life love story in the works, his character is now played by Jamar Williams (in a sweet, heartfelt performance) while Matthews has transitioned to director.

Griffin arrives in Kampala, Uganda to help build a school for local children. He befriends a young worker named Jacob (Kameron Richardson) whose life is controlled by his angry, overbearing sister, Joy (Amber Iman). A few days later, Griffin loses faith in the mission when he learns their leader, Pastor Jim, plans to sell the school for his own gain, upon its completion. At the same time, he crosses paths with a group of poor orphans who are unable to pay for school but are eager to learn. One of them steals his backpack, which forces Griffin to chase them up a hill to get it back. It is there that his mission shifts from building a school to being a teacher, and he leaves Pastor Jim’s worksite behind.

Jamar Williams and Kameron Richardson with the cast

As expected, the fallout has consequences, however, not for him. And that is perhaps the biggest problem with the show. While the story is about Griffin, nothing really happens to Griffin. Jacob suffers and the children Griffin teaches will endure a huge loss but our hero’s journey has little dramatic tension or personal conflict. His internal struggle alone isn’t enough to sustain the narrative and keep the audience invested. We need higher stakes.

To compensate, the creative team has packed the show with powerful performances, explosive choreography, and exciting vocals that intersect with gale-force intensity. The result can feel somewhat over-produced for the size of The Wallis’ Lovelace Studio Theater but it’s a thrilling combination of elements nonetheless. It’s also a great example of how talented artists can elevate material and make it seem better than it is.

Audience members are positioned on two sides of the stage opposite each other in an effort to create an inclusive experience but instead it only limits the playing area. Technical aspects take a necessary minimalist approach. Other than a few props, a couple of platforms, black boxes that can be repositioned to create the different locales, and some good lighting effects (using LED lights for a disaster scene are a particularly smart solution), the actors and dancers tell the story.

On one of the platforms, Gould conducts the band while playing an electric keyboard housed inside a baby grand with the guts removed. Near the end of the show, the whole unit moves across the length of the stage while he bangs out a highly-charged song. The staging doesn’t have anything to do with the storytelling however it is a cool effect.

Dexter Darden (center) and cast

Gould’s score is a tantalizing mix of pop rock, African rhythms, power ballads, and percussive beats, and he definitely knows how to write a memorable hook. The songs create an impact with their overall style and sound, and it’s easy for a lover of beautiful music to get swept away by their pop sensibility but for theatre that isn’t enough. They need lyrics that will advance the action or engage us in the story. Otherwise we sit back instead of lean into the show. And yet, the beating heart of the piece is never in question.

Witness Uganda may still be searching for the best way to tell its inspiring story but it is a worthy journey we do want to take. Clarity, and a stronger point of view, would make all the difference.

February 5 – March 3, 2019 
Wallis Annenberg Center for Performing Arts
Lovelace Studio Theater
9390 N. Santa Monica Boulevard
Beverly Hills, CA 90210 
Tickets: 310.746.4000 or

Photo credit: Kevin Parry, except where noted.

Jamar Williams and Amber Iman

Antwone Barnes and the cast

Jamar Williams and Kameron Richardson

Emma Hunton and Jamar Williams

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