Monday, February 24, 2014

No Lessons Learned: Witness Uganda

Photo by Gretjen Helene Photography

In the American Repertory Theatre’s latest musical production, Witness Uganda, a twenty-three-year-old black kid from New York named Griffin travels to Uganda as a volunteer to help a local known as Pastor Jim build a school for the poor in a small village. Griffin sings in the choir of his church and aspires to an acting career, but he feels alienated – he senses that his homosexuality makes him persona non grata in the choir – and undefined, and he hopes that being committed to something beyond himself will change all that. But when he gets to the village he doesn’t like the rules that restrict him to Pastor Jim’s compound, and the more he sees of the operation the more suspicious it looks. So he ends up breaking away from Pastor Jim and setting up a classroom in an abandoned library for some teenagers who aren’t being educated at all because the schools aren’t free.

Griffin Matthews co-wrote the play with the composer Matt Gould (who doubles as conductor), he plays Griffin, and it’s loosely based on his own experiences. And though this may be more a result of naïveté and theatrical inexperience – the writing is embarrassingly clunky, especially the storytelling elements – than arrogance or ego, the way he presents himself as the earnest, indomitable hero of his own story is off-putting. (The show’s director, A.R.T.’s artistic director Diane Paulus, is a seasoned professional who brought the company’s last two musicals, revivals of Porgy and Bess and Pippin, to Broadway, so she should have known better.) The play is framed as a coming-of-age story in which Griffin learns how little he understands about Uganda’s people and struggles and traditions, and we see the difficulties he encounters as he tries to play the roles of rebel and savior. He doesn’t anticipate Pastor Jim’s wrath – his cohorts burn down the library at the end of the first act – or the complications caused by his befriending and educating Pastor Jim’s servant, Jacob (Michael Luwoye); he doesn’t anticipate the financial burden the teenagers place on him once he’s liberated them from the village and returned to the States or the fact that he has to hide his sexuality from them because of Uganda’s anti-gay laws. And he does find out that he was wrong about the members of his church back in New York, who rise to the occasion when his best friend Ryan (Nicolette Robinson), a musician who joins him in the village in the middle of act one, asks them for monetary assistance for the kids. However, none of these obstacles makes much of a difference in the final analysis. He gets the teenagers out and his ministrations place their lives onto successful paths. As the script is written, the unhappy consequences of his bond with Jacob turn out to illuminate Griffin’s pure, caring nature. He even gets to come out to one of his beneficiaries, now a medical student, at the end of the play. And Pastor Jim is precisely the kind of shadowy villain – a corrupt, lascivious, violent monster – that every fairy tale needs. (He’s literally in the shadows: we never see him.)

You start to resent the fact that the main focus of the musical is Griffin’s suffering, especially in the second act, when one of the numbers allows Matthews to express his character’s anguish in pop-musical-theatre attitudinizing. In fact, Witness Uganda tends to fall back on the kind of clichés, somewhat in the music and continually in the lyrics, that we’re familiar with through shows like Rent – sincerity rendered fake through a poverty of expressive imagination. But the more Gould’s music incorporates African harmonies and rhythms, the better it becomes, and there are four impressive songs in the second act, including a clever one in which the Ugandan teenagers e-mail Griffin with their bottomless financial requests and a beautiful tune that accompanies Griffin and Ryan’s return to Africa by plane. This is also the best visual moment in the production, where Paulus’s staging and Darrell Grand Moultrie’s choreography – which are strong throughout – intersect most powerfully with Maruti Evans’ lighting and Peter Nigrini’s projections.

Everyone in the fourteen-member ensemble can sing and dance impressively; I’d single out Melody Betts among the ensemble, a soulful big mama with a huge voice and a dynamic presence. I didn’t care much for Matthews’ acting, which contains too much show-biz shtick, but the show is generally well acted – though I wish that Luwoye, as much as he commands his scenes, wouldn’t keep making sad faces to tell us how difficult Jacob’s life is. The problem here is the play’s weakness for a brand of theatricality that reduces the African characters to emblems. The exception is Joy (Adeola Role), who works for Pastor Jim, plays host to Griffin during his time in the village, and alerts both him and Jacob to their short-sightedness. She has a far more interesting story than Griffin, and Role has the talent to explore it. It’s a pity Matthews couldn’t see past himself long enough to put Joy and not himself at the center of the musical.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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