Witness Uganda or Invisible Thread as it is now titled, tells the story of its creator, Griffin Matthews who, having been forced out of his church choir after coming out to the congregation, signed onto a charitable mission to build homes in a remote village in Uganda. There, he struck up a relationship with a group of young war orphans he met in the marketplace. Urged on by these teenagers, Griffin established an ad hoc schoolhouse that evolved into an honest-to-goodness non-profit: one with the distinct mission to fund this small group of teens’ education, through high school and beyond.
Griffin and his partner Matt Gould initially created the songs as a means to raise money for their non-profit schoolhouse in Uganda. Griffin’s very identity as a black, gay American interfering in the fragile human ecosystem of a foreign culture was dangerous. In Uganda, it is illegal to be gay or to associate with someone who is gay. A bill sanctioning violence and imprisonment for LGBT peoples (and their allies) was alarmingly close to law.
Meanwhile, the A.R.T.’s Artistic Director Diane Paulus listened to Witness Uganda for the first time, in 2012, and came on board as the show’s director. The humanitarian impulse at its heart remained throughout the process, and six months before Witness Uganda’s opening night in Cambridge, co-creators Matt Gould and Griffin Matthews took a break from script and score revisions to return to Boston for a ten-day community tour. They performed their two-man song cycle at over a dozen schools, community centers and places of worship, following each performance with a Q&A. Whether at a middle school or a Ugandan Anglican church, Griffin and Matt conducted candid and lively focused discussions in an atmosphere of safety and intimacy.
The most visible dividend of the tour emerged at Lowell High School with the help of one of the A.R.T.’s strongest teacher advocates, LHS English Language Learners instructor Deb Fowler. Situated in one of the largest immigrant communities in Massachusetts (including East African refugees), Lowell High was eager to engage deeply with Witness Uganda.
Situated in one of the largest immigrant communities in Massachusetts (including East African refugees), Lowell High was eager to engage deeply with Witness Uganda.
On their way up to the school, Matt and Griffin felt uneasy about broaching the topic of their sexual orientation (and status as partners). Still in their early-thirties, they vividly recalled their own years at high school, where it had been difficult and even dangerous to be gay and “out.” After some debate, they decided to speak their story honestly and fully. Midway through their performance, as part of his storytelling, Griffin revealed his relationship with Matt, and how it complicated his work in Uganda. To the surprise of probably everyone except the students, cheers and applause exploded in the auditorium. Ms. Fowler was gobsmacked, she herself an advocate of LGBT inclusion in public education, but hitherto unsure of the climate for change within her own school.
Several months later, Witness Uganda enjoyed a sold out run, which included thousands of tour participants from Lowell and other sites. A daily post-show discussion, dubbed “Act III,” included special guests each night and provided an essential forum for unpacking the experience of the musical. Tour participants in attendance not only served as Act III panelists in some occasions, but overall demonstrated an enhanced level of preparation, investment and readiness to receive the work on stage. This had been an anticipated goal of the Witness Uganda tour.
Here’s what the A.R.T. did not anticipate. Six months following Witness Uganda‘s final performance, Deb Fowler sent a letter updating the theater about one of her students, Rolph, a refugee from the earthquake in Haiti. Rolph, inspired to use theater to steer his peers away from gang violence and disillusionment, had written a play. At the premiere of, I Witness (sound familiar?) Rolph collected donations to buy paper, pens, and art supplies for new immigrant and refugee classmates.
As for Deb Fowler? She recently started a non-profit organization to advocate for LGBT inclusive curriculum on a national stage. In her words, “none of this would have happened without Witness Uganda.”
For the A.R.T., a new musical about aid work in Africa, told through the ordeals of a young, gay, African-American volunteer, was more than an artistic and financial smash hit. It was a life-changer.
Invisible Thread, as it is now titled, will be running in New York City at Second Stage in Fall 2015.