Witness Uganda, currently being performed at Harvard’s American Repertory Theater in Boston, is a musical co-created by composer Matt Gould (Mauritania 2001-03) and Griffin Matthews. It is directed by Diane Paulus, the A.R.T. Artistic Director, and the 2013 Tony Award for Best Director of a Musical (Pippin). And it is a smash hit at the Loeb Drama Center from February 4th to March 16th.
A good friend of mine who saw the production and alerted me that an RPCV was one of its co-creaters. She wrote, “The music was very powerful and powerfully performed. The cast gave their all to the story. Matt Gould not only composed the music but also let the band and was singing out a storm as well.”
Witness Uganda grew out of Griffin Matthews experiences when he volunteered to go to Uganda to help AID victims.
It started this way.
Griffin went to Uganda in the summer of 2005 to work in an orphanage for children of AIDS victims and in less than three days he discovered its director was embezzling money.
Furious, and innocent of the ways of much of life is lived in Africa, he took a long walk to clear his head and met up with a gang of kids who, of course, called this African-American, mzungu, white person, then peppered him with questions about his visit there and his life in the United States.
“I had gone all the way across the world, and I was a white person,” Matthews now jokes. The Ugandan teenagers showed him the cramped shacks where they lived, and explained how many of them had lost their parents to AIDS. When Matthews offered to help, they said something surprising.
“They didn’t ask for money,” says Matthews. “They didn’t ask for food. They said they wanted to go to school.”
Matthews met them the next day at the local library, and there they discussed health education, public speaking, and their dreams for the future. His impromptu class turned into a daily meeting, and ultimately gave rise to his grass roots, non-profit organization.
Griffin came back to the U.S. and set up this grass-roots non-profit organization-Uganda Project–that provides free education, housing, mentoring, and basic needs to students, all the children of AIDS victims. Today there are approximately 2.5 million orphans in Uganda, children who have lost their parents because of AIDS. School in Uganda is not free, so without parents, they cannot get an education. Today, Uganda Project supports ten students.
It has not been easy. At Matt Gould explains. “Griffin was really frustrated at how hard it was to raise money. One day I recorded Griffin ranting and wove those words into music. The next morning I played it for him and something about it just worked. We decided to write a few songs and turn it into a staged infomercial for Uganda Project.”
From that beginning, they started thinking of a more formal theater piece, and then were invited to Disney ASCAP (the American Society of composers, authors, and Publishers) and were able to do a 25-minute performance one night and a 50-minute on the second. Word got around and it sold out.
“After the second performance,” said Griffin Matthews, “the composer Stephen Schwartz [Pippin, Wicked, Godspell] said to us, ‘Boys, this is a musical. Just figure out what story you want to tell.’ And that was the night we knew we should start looking at it as a musical and not just an infomercial.”
Matt Gould, who is the co-director of the Uganda Project, did the music and
arrangements, as well as conducts, Uganda Witness. He had a degree in acting from Boston University and has composed and arranged music for Grammy winner Desmond Child, Terrence McNally, Vanessa Williams, and Playwrights Horizons. While in the Mauritania he translated, adapted and directed Romeo and Juliet in Pulaar. Right now he is working on new musical commissions for Yale Rep (Lempicka), Center Theatre Group (The Family Project), and the Japanese non-profit, Ashinaga (A Cantata).
Griffin Matthews graduated with a B.F.A. in musical theater from Carnegie Mellon University, is a writer, director, and actor who splits his time now between New
York and Los Angeles. He has currently been commissioned by Center Theatre Group to write the new musical The Family Project, which is about the ever-changing face of the American family. His acting credits have included Off-Broadway products as well as television. Among his TV credits are “Law and Order: LA,” “The Mentalist,” and “The Carrie Diaries.”
Today, UgandaProject provides free education, housing, mentoring, and basic needs to students. For more information go to: www.ugandaproject.com