by Matt Gould and Griffin Matthews
directed by Diane Paulus
originally produced at American Repertory Theater,
February 4, 2014
through March 16, 2014
Witness Uganda is inspired by the true story of Griffin Matthews, a young African American volunteer, who travels to Uganda to help build a village school, in the wake of a spiritual crisis brought on by his church’s rejection of his sexuality. Shortly after arriving in Africa, however, Griffin realizes that the organization he is working for is corrupt. After meeting a group of teenagers orphaned by AIDS, living on the streets and unable to afford the fees required for public schooling, Griffin starts teaching them and becomes driven by a mission to change their lives. Placing the teenagers in a boarding school, Griffin returns to the States, founds a nonprofit organization, and begins to organize a community of sponsors. As his faith in his mission and himself is put to the test, he must confront his own mistakes and build on his relationships with both the people who support him and the people who depend on him.
This powerful and provocative new musical explores the complexities of trying to effect positive change, by documenting the story of a young man struggling to find his place in the world.
Witness Uganda is a unique opportunity for the A.R.T. to connect with new audiences, in a new way. There is untapped potential for theater to engage with the whole movement of people who actively identify with issues and causes, who fund projects on Kick-Starter and join on-line campaigns. The Uganda Project – the nonprofit organization started by one of the creators of this musical – was created that way; what Griffin Matthews did for years, trying to raise money to fund the education of the orphans he met in Uganda, brought him in touch with a much bigger movement that changes what it means to be an activist.
That way of working links up with what we are doing at the A.R.T. Our mission is to expand the boundaries of theater and my guiding principle is engage the audience. We’re part of a movement to make theater a very democratic and accessible experience, where our audiences can be as diverse as the world we live in today. And with Witness Uganda, we have one movement speaking with another.
Witness Uganda will be an amazing adventure for the artists, for the A.R.T., and finally, for the audience. It speaks directly to the questions I am passionate about as a director: ‘What is theater?,' ‘How do you define it?,' ‘'What does it look like?,' ‘Where do we find it?,’ ‘What does it do?’
I think theater connects us to each other and our world. It offers an experience; it brings people to a place where they examine, together, the key issues of our time. My mission as a director and as an artistic director is not only to produce a work of theater but to build a sense of community among the people on the stage, in the wings, and in the seats out front. When people share live art experiences, they come together to be present with each other, to identify with points of view that are different from their own, to feel empathy, and to consider issues in a layered and complex way. A sense of community is essential to our lives.
Witness Uganda opens up a whole new way to bring stories and issues to life onstage, for modern audiences from many different towns and cities in our region – people of all ages and backgrounds, born in countries from throughout the world. It began as Griffin Matthews’s experience: his trip to Uganda in 2005 to build a school. From there the trip itself became something entirely different, and Griffin came home determined to help 12 specific individuals – 12 orphaned children – get an education. That’s what he worked on for the next six years. Now those 12 children are grown, and the real events have become a story about what happened and what it means. Griffin has always said this work asks the question, “How do we make a difference in the world? How is it even possible?”
With this project we are taking on that question as part of our own artistic process, which also asks, What does it mean to transform real events into theatrical events? How is it possible to re-invent a true story as an exciting, vibrant, theatrical experience?
I think it is possible; I think it is important; I think it is a fascinating way to make theater that brings attention to the issues of our time, and brings people together.
--Diane Paulus, Artistic Director
When readying a new work, especially a new musical, for its premiere, the most valuable resource a theater can have is time. This extra time allows the creators the ability to delve deeper and to help fully realize the potential of the piece. In an environment where we are all too often asked to do more with less, the two extra weeks of rehearsal provided by the Edgerton Foundation’s gift to the A.R.T. will give our world premiere production of Witness Uganda room to breathe and space to soar.
Director: Diane Paulus
Set Design: Tom Pye
Sound Design: Jonathan Deans
Costume Design: Emilio Sosa
Choreographer: Darrell Grand Moultrie