‘Witness Uganda’ musical takes on neocolonialism, sexuality, AIDS, and rocks!
From left, Jamar Williams (Griffin), Kameron Richardson (Jacob) with ensemble / Kevin Parry

BEVERLY HILLS—The Uganda-set song and dance show now winding up its residency here at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts has an unusual subtitle: A Documentary Musical. It is based on the real-life experiences of African-American actor and adventure-seeker Griffin Matthews, who had just graduated from the musical theatre program at Carnegie-Mellon in Pittsburgh and thought he would spend a couple of months in the summer of 2005 helping to start a school in Uganda for AIDS orphans. He left, in part, because he felt driven out of the church where he sang tenor in the choir, because of their homophobia.

Uganda turned out to become his life work and over time a musical that he created with his partner Matt Gould. Gould, it so happened, had himself served in the Peace Corps in Mauritania, and could easily relate to the strange tales Matthews told him about his unnerving, yet moving encounters in Uganda.

In its original presentation, Gould and Matthews wrote a few songs to perform for fundraisers for the orphans, with Gould at the keyboard and Matthews playing himself. Gould is still at the keyboard, heading up a small but highly energetic four-person band, but the Matthews role has now been taken up by the slight-of-frame but powerhouse of talent Jamar Williams. Matthews continues as director of the production.

Today there are an estimated 2.5 million orphans in Uganda. A very large percentage of them lost their parents to AIDS. The HIV virus, of course, knows nothing of straight, gay or anything else. In Africa, the HIV/AIDS crisis affects heterosexuals in far greater numbers than gay males, as is the case in the U.S. Puritanical attitudes about sex, and about homosexuality, promiscuity, and drugs, in particular, have severely affected care, treatment and prevention efforts globally.

Only a couple of years ago, scores of intravenous drug users in one Indiana county seroconverted to HIV-positive because the government of homophobic ultra-right Christian Gov. Mike Pence would not allow them to access sterile syringes. The healthcare community will not soon forget that President Ronald Reagan never even uttered the word “AIDS” publicly until the last months of his eight-year presidency, thus contributing to a fatal seven-year delay in research.

In Uganda, the discourse is slanted by widespread evangelical judgment which hinders the adoption of nonjudgmental science-based approaches. In the U.S. under Trump, his AIDS Advisory Council resigned wholesale when they saw how uninterested his regime was in any commitment to treatment, prevention, and cure. He has still not appointed a new HIV/AIDS body of advisers.

Matthews’s Uganda Project, which is still ongoing, only concerns itself with the further education of his original 12 students, some of whom have now earned university degrees or achieved other professional advances, married and given birth to children. It’s a drop in the ocean of need, but it is something, and in its shadow, other institutions have sprung up in Uganda. Still, LGBTQ life there is a life-threatening condition, what with government inaction and outright terrorism, much of it from supposedly “anti-colonialist” religious fundamentalists, against gender non-conforming people.

Griffin’s BFF is his feisty roommate Ryan (Emma Hunton), who matches him in vocal power; she is either exchanging letters or emails or phone calls with Griffin or sometimes accompanying him to Uganda to see where this episode of their lives will lead. In the Q&A that followed the finale, Matthews revealed that the Ryan character was actually a composite of three of his and Gould’s supportive female friends.

Among the varied young teenagers at the school, there are distinct personalities, and all get their chance to shine. But there is one recruit to the school who wins the not openly gay Griffin’s heart, Jacob (Kameron Richardson), but Jacob feels torn between his obligations at the church mission where he was raised as an orphan with his bossy sister Joy (Amber Iman) by a religiously demanding pastor and his wife. The emotional connection between the two young men is real enough: Griffin recognizes it as a same-sex attraction, but it is not at all clear that Jacob sees them as more than “brothers.” It turns out late in the show that Joy has her own reasons to be so, uh, joyless—which explains why Jacob had early on warned Griffin, “Don’t trust the pastor.”

The through-line of the musical is a little shapeless but it’s not only the plot that engages the audience: It’s the exuberant African-based singing and dancing that liven up every number. Even the piano comes to center-stage to take part in the non-stop movement. Music supervisor Remy Kurs no doubt had a hand in making the big production numbers so infectious with their catchy sweet-and-sour African choral harmonies.

Griffin is forever troubled by the fear that whatever good intentions he may have held amount in the end to little more than Western neocolonialism, the idea that people from America know better than the Ugandans how to run their society and fix their lives. However, he sees how “his” orphans have been effectively left to their own devices, without schooling of any kind or healthy prospects for the future. At the same time there are other forces competing for dominance not only in Uganda but in many other countries: especially the American fundamentalist Christian communities that not only send proselytizers and money to make some brands of African Christianity so intolerant, but also seduce (read, bribe) legislators to pass laws such as one in Uganda not long back, which threatened to make homosexuality a capital crime.

The role of civil society and private philanthropy in transforming government policy is highly debatable—often welcome, but as often as not, intrusive and patronizing. Each case must be studied independently. The main factor should always be, Does the country invite such aid and how much control does the country exert once the aid starts coming in? We may never know, for instance, exactly how big a part the North American evangelical movement played in the recent failure of the Cuban Constitutional reform to include same-gender marriage; apparently, there was significant opposition coming from their Cuban counterpart churches.

It’s a shame that the U.S. has so profoundly deprecated the importance of the United Nations, which through the World Health Organization, UNICEF, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Labor Organization and many other departments, could have such a progressive impact not only in the underdeveloped world but even in such benighted countries as the U.S., which continues to stand outside many conventions (such the rights of children) that at least nominally the rest of the world commits to honor. A recommitment to the UN should be high on the list of Democratic demands in 2020.

The ensemble, with Dexter Darden center / Kevin Parry

This story of an “innocent abroad” is miles ahead of the loopy Book of Mormon, a highly popular musical that some critics have found to be racist toward Africans. In Witness Uganda, the authors have struggled to understand their own biases, and have offered audiences the hand-clapping, foot-stomping opportunity to examine their own. A strong scene in act two redirects attention back to the existential structural change—they call it “Resurrection,” implying that it’s a cataclysmic moral struggle—that we need back home. In the end, said Matthews in the Q&A, “the story isn’t about Uganda at all, it’s about America.”

The stage design by Conner MacPhee places the audience on two sides of a “tennis court” for maximum visibility. Costumes by Carlton Jones are delightful, especially at the final curtain, a big modern African fashion show.

The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts is located at 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills, CA 90210. Tickets can obtained by calling (310) 746-4000 or on the Wallis website. Remaining performances are Feb. 28, March 1 and 2 at 8 pm, March 2 and 3 at 2:30 pm, and March 3 at 7:30 pm. The show runs two and a half hours with one intermission.


CONTRIBUTOR

Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator (from Portuguese) of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He holds a doctorate in history from Tulane University. He chaired the Southern California chapter of the National Writers Union, Local 1981 UAW (AFL-CIO) for two terms and is director emeritus of The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring Southern California District. In 2015 he produced “City of the Future,” a CD of Soviet Yiddish songs by Samuel Polonski.

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