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Theater Review | A.R.T. show explores, critiques aid work in Uganda

Published: Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Updated: Wednesday, February 19, 2014 09:02

The crowd cheered as the lights came up and Griffin Matthews, the co-creator, lead actor and inspiration behind the main character of “Witness Uganda,” walked out on stage. Matthews seemed to swell — proudly, not egotistically — with the applause. After months of preparation, “Witness Uganda” had finally been brought to life at the American Repertory Theater (A.R.T), and everyone in the packed Loeb Drama Center was there to see him and to hear his story.

Inspired by real-life events, “Witness Uganda” is a tale about aid work in the eponymous country. However it is also Matthew’s analysis and critique of this aid — from the nature of the work to how people think about it and why they do it. “Witness Uganda” — a musical theatre piece developed in collaboration by Matthews’ and Matt Gould, who served as a member of the Peace Corps in Mauritania — was first imagined as something akin to an infomercial for their non-profit organization UgandaProject. At times, the project’s origins become abundantly clear; some of the messages may be blunt, yet they are also provocative and poignant.

The musical score, written by the co-creators and conducted by Gould, lends complex beauty to the show. It is original and dynamic, with influences coming from far-flung places. Percussion-based songs of Ugandan flavor also include elements from a range of American musical genres. The songs offer food for thought. Imbedded in the context of the show, they can just as quickly convince audience members that humanity is morally bankrupt as they can have theatergoers believing that humanity’s limits for good are bounded only by the laws of physics.

For its part, the set seems to completely defy the laws of physics. Impressive on-stage projections (the work of Peter Nigrini) and lighting design by Maruti Evans, along with Tom Pye’s set, are worth a trip to the theater in their own right. Diane Paulus, the A.R.T.’s artistic director and director of “Witness Uganda,” uses these elements to coordinate a visually stunning production. The show brings audience members on a voyage that spans from New York City to a village in Uganda to a pseudo-cyber universe where moving emails are projected on the set.

Unfortunately, the acting can feel a little like the emails at times — lifeless and somewhat of a caricature. Perhaps this awkwardness develops because the dialogue sounds occasionally singsong. At other times, however — like when the ironically named Joy (Adeola Role), whose lyrical and spoken word performances are marvelous, administers her doses of bitter reality — the dialogue sings and singes.

Those most burned in “Witness Uganda” are charitable donors, volunteers and Matthews himself. He runs away to Uganda to escape the pressure he feels after being outed to his church choir. What Matthews finds, however, is a whole host of people who (unaware of his sexual orientation) would do almost anything to switch places with him — even marry him. Matthews, in turn, uses other people’s problems to feel better about, or even just to drown out, his own. Joy is the voice of pessimism: she puts on a show for the volunteers, thanking them for their work, but also loathes them for caring only enough to come, take pictures, build a school and leave. The schools become a symbol of the dissonance between aid efforts and the needs of communities.

Perhaps one of the best things about “Witness Uganda” is that, for all the points it makes, it never seems ham-handed. The show feels organic, almost effortless. Granted, at times it can be didactic; for example, Jacob (Michael Luwoye) advises Matthews, “If you want a banana to fall, you stand underneath the avocado tree.”

But for all its dark musings this show has a happy ending. And, if you do not believe that every musical should end with tears of joy, be assured that those that shed are at least well deserved.

“Witness Uganda” is playing at the A.R.T.’s Loeb Drama Center through March 16.

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