Theater Review: “Witness Uganda” — From Africa, With Schmaltz
“Witness Uganda” is a quintessential American product — it is a work of cultural tourism that condemns cultural tourism.
Witness Uganda, by Matt Gould and Griffin Matthews. Directed by Diane Paulus. Choreography by Darrell Grand Moultrie. Staged by the American Repertory Theater at the Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, through March 16.
By Bill Marx
I believe that poor orphans around the world should be empowered, that they should be treated with unconditional love and respect, that they should be given opportunities for a good education and meaningful jobs, that they should be offered the freedom to be whoever they wish to be, to love whoever they wish without being judged, that they should feel that they are beautiful and can fly high into the sky … and that well-heeled theater audiences should do whatever they reasonably can to support honest efforts to help these unfortunate orphans around the globe, that the well-off in America and elsewhere should commit themselves to this admirable goal. In that way, we will all change the world for the better.
If you think this is a bit much, it ain’t nothing compared to the geysers of empowerment clichés fired, without letup, into our faces in the musical Witness Uganda, which is receiving its world premiere via director Diane Paulus and the American Repertory Theater. Early on, the show purports to be about something real: it will explore the complexities of international aid, the dicey difficulties of helping others around the world. But it turns out there is nothing very complicated or disturbing in this feel-good story of a young church-going gay African American who volunteers for a short philanthropic mission in Uganda. There he befriends some adorable young-adult orphans. The innocent American learns some predicable lessons [There are bad people out there! You can’t do it all by yourself!] while building a school and inspiring the kids to pull themselves up by their native bootstraps. Uplift rises to dangerously high glucose levels; any downlift is resolved quickly. Our hero confronts what amounts to original sin in facile lefty musicals—not everyone wants to be empowered—and triumphs! After being buffeted with proclamations of unlimited human potential for two hours, it is difficult not to be a touch sympathetic with the holdouts.
Witness Uganda is based on a true story, the experience of Griffin Matthews, who is the show’s co-creator and portrays the protagonist in this production with lively if showbiz-y conviction. No doubt the autobiographical grit and grime has been completely airbrushed out of the musical’s book for the sake of massaging liberal sensibilities, keeping potential contributors unruffled (you never know who is in the audience), and ensuring commercial viability. The show’s book sticks closely to the cliffhanger trials and tribulations of the concerned-to-the-max Griffin and his abused buddies: there is scant mention of government policies or corporations, in or out of Africa, or of the questionable machinations of aid from America and Europe, including reports that evangelical churches are funding anti-gay legislation in Uganda and elsewhere. Griffin’s homosexuality is regarded with hatred in Uganda, but that problem is finessed without a serious confrontation until the end of the show, when the obligingly teary moment of mutual understanding is supplied. The orphans don’t like the Sudanese people, but that is taken care of through a stern word from Griffin.
The “Up With People” tenor of the show’s songs (performed by a solid orchestra led by co-creator Matt Gould) are summed up by their sugary titles: “Love More,” “Beautiful,” “Put It All On the Line,” “New World,” “Be the Light,” etc. The lyrics are pumped-up hymns to self-actualization, the moderately compelling music driven by African rhythms. The cast members are energetic and no doubt talented, but they are not given many substantial things to do, aside from alternating between being perky and needy. The show’s most complex figure, Joy (played with gaunt dignity by Adeola Role), delivers the show’s “be committed to others around the world” message, wrapping things up for the audience and Griffin. Griffin’s friend Ryan, an overweight wannabe-singer (cue one-liners about her waistline), joins the group in Uganda to add a feminist context to the proceedings. Emma Hinton brings a touch of cynical spice to the role — but not enough.
Paulus provides her usual kinetic direction, a cinematic, catch-me-if-you-can use of scrims and giant-screened video, bringing in music and dancers when the action flags or to hammerlock our gaze upwards to a better tomorrow. When Griffin becomes discouraged by the strain of making the world a better place, you just know that in a moment or two the homeless kids are going to come in singing “Beautiful” and snap him out of it. Those orphans are filled with life and love to spare! As with Paulus’s other Tony award–winning productions, such as Pippin, she tends to craft broad performances — semaphore acting whenever feasible — with an emphasis on clarity rather than nuance.
No one has more respect for Paulus’s brilliance as a packager, impresario, and marketer, but it is telling that she doesn’t have her sales patter down cold for Witness Uganda. In the A.R.T. program she is asked to talk about how the show expands the boundaries of the theater. Besides proffering boilerplate stuff about “incubating a new American musical,” Paulus says she was “knocked out by the score. It sounded like nothing I had ever heard before.” Somebody has to buy her a year’s subscription to World Music/CrashArts — African music has been influencing American popular music for decades. She goes on to say that “I read the script and it was like nothing I had ever read before — especially as far as musicals go.” A yarn about a naive young man going to another country and learning hard lessons while doing good for underprivileged students is not new (To Sir, With Love, et al.). And there is nothing at all nervy in scheduling a talk back among audience members, the creators of a show, and academic experts after each performance. Though I must admit calling the gab fest “Act III” is an amusing example of branding chutzpah.
As for the politics of the piece, who is going to side against assisting deserving homeless kids in Africa? Not me. Given Paulus’s popular bent, incisive political theater is no longer to be found at the A.R.T. — Brecht has not just left the building, but the planet. But had Paulus really wanted to stretch theatrical boundaries she would have done away with the Western filter entirely and produced an innovative musical from the point of view of the Ugandan people. She might have generated her material in the way that enterprising documentary filmmakers are doing now — they give video cameras to the marginalized in other countries. That way we can see how others on the lower end of the social scale experience the world. Or she might have drawn on the writings of Ugandan writers — I am embarrassed to say I have read only one, Moses Isegawa, and his superb 2002 novel Abyssinian Chronicles (his latest is 2005’s Snakepit). Aren’t there any playwrights in Uganda? But to have brought in indigenous voices in a serious way might have made the show less palatable to a broad audience. Witness Uganda is a quintessential American product — a work of cultural tourism that condemns cultural tourism. And that brings me to ….
Polemical Note: Since Paulus has been renewed in the position of A.R.T Artistic Director for five more years, I suggest that it is time for the company to rebrand. The claim that it “is expanding the boundaries of theater” no longer holds water. It should be amended to something like “expanding the boundaries of commercial theater.” There is nothing wrong with creating theater packages that win the hearts of New York’s tourist audiences. But the Tony Awards (which are bankrolled by big money producers) are like the Oscars — they are not about rewarding artistic risk or merit but dedicated to generating a profitable public image. By definition, Broadway theater does not set out to challenge or provoke audiences — it means to entertain and divert. Nothing wrong with that when it is done intelligently — but it is not about pushing boundaries, it is about ringing cash registers. May the A.R.T. win a boatload of Tony Awards in the future. But that is not the same as extending the art of the theater. The current motto should be revised because it is a lie.
Why all the theatrical bling at the A.R.T.? A few quick reasons. There’s the Glee-ifcation of the American stage, with its fetish for the musical. Over the past two decades, universities have transformed themselves into corporations that increasingly see their students as customers; these image-obsessed businesses encourage their nonprofit theater companies to treat audiences as consumers who deserve a predictable product for their support, which also serves the marketing goals of the university. Theater that pleases rather than grates keeps alumni content. At the A.R.T., the move toward the anti-intellectual is most likely a response to the auteurist approach of the previous decades, a vision that in its final years was perceived to be (at times rightfully) pretentious, arrogant, and sterile. Also, my sense is that the powerful dramas found on cable TV, as well as the journalistic verve of select independent documentaries, has put live theater on the defensive — serious new plays, always a hard sell, look like also-rans when compared to Breaking Bad. Sticking to bouncy escapism guarantees a modicum of relevance, at least at the box office.
There are those in and out of Harvard University who do not like where Paulus is taking the A.R.T. The anger strikes me as somewhat overwrought — she is making the powers-that-be happy. Harvard University has put its money where it wants — in flashy cash/grant machines. My reaction to Paulus and her brand of theater is philosophical: this too shall pass. I was here in the early ’80s when the auteurist wave came in, trailing clouds of glory, and I saw it go out with a whimper. I am confident I will be around when Paulus’s dance-a-rama, carnival approach to stage entertainment becomes passé. (I already see telltale signs of self-parody in Witness Uganda.)
I left out a few of my beliefs in the opening paragraph. I am convinced that there are theater practitioners young and old who, out on the margins, are creating stage productions that do not settle for spiffing up formulas and goosing exhausted conventions. I believe that today’s audiences (including young people) are hungry for theater that asks more from them than righteous inspiration, political correctness, and the chance to shake their booties. To paraphrase a line from Witness Uganda — “Don’t sit under a cherry tree waiting for an apple to fall.” By all means, if you have the bread enjoy the A.R.T.’s highly publicized circuses — but no amount of bread or branding can turn a cherry into an apple. Support orphans. But don’t forget to support theater artists who—often without the resources and marketing panache of the A.R.T.—are genuinely trying to expand theatrical boundaries. Let us all live and love together in peace. Kumbaya!
Bill Marx is the Editor-in-Chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.
A reassuring sign regarding the young and their demand for substance over flash — the reviewer for the Harvard Crimson is too kind to Witness Uganda, but she makes some sharp points about how it serves up “the kind of exploitative, simplistic representation of an African nation that no one wants to endorse.” We won’t get better theater unless we demand more from our companies.
Oh please! There are venues for thoughtful and provocative theater. They have 99 or less seats for a reason.
In the final paragraph I note that there are venues for thoughtful and provocative theater. [Not all of them are only 99 seats.] I ask that they be supported. My point about the A.R.T. is that well-heeled regional companies that produce commercial material cannot have it both ways. They can’t claim to be expanding the boundaries of theater but produce hits (or wanna-be hits) for Broadway at the same time. It is hypocrisy. The A.R.T. needs to rebrand — their logo should be along the lines of “Pushing at the limits of Broadway entertainment.”
What a pleasure to read such an intelligent, informed, and well-reasoned analysis of what sounds like Diane Paulus’s latest foray into theater as carnival, dumbed down to attract the most reluctant (although likely wealthy) theater goers, while still clutching to pretentions of being avant-garde and thought-provoking. Having experienced Paulus’s “The Donkey Show,” I’m sure Bill Marx must know what he’s writing about, so I will not be venturing out to witness or empower any unfortunate orphans.
Witness Uganda: Another Perspective
Far be it from me to question my esteemed colleague and editor Bill Marx about theater. He has more knowledge about this esoteric subject in his pinky finger than I have in my entire body. But having just experienced the excitement, energy and brilliance of Witness Uganda, I feel compelled to counter his deeply negative and flawed review of this show.
Bill’s cynical take on the new musical by Matt Gould and Griffin Matthews, which just concluded its run at the ART in Cambridge, was built around what he viewed as a cliché-ridden, uninspiring “Americans assuage their guilt for living in the lap of luxury by running over to save poor Africans” theme. From his review, you would expect to walk out of the theater with Type 2 diabetes contracted from the saccharine sweet story line.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The show that Gould and Matthews created is hardly ready to be included in the pantheon of great Broadway musicals, but it was an exhilarating, funny, poignant and moving evening of pounding African rhythms, exceptional performances, particularly by Matthews, the co-creator and talented star, who retells his life-changing adventure as a young, gay, aspiring actor who abandons all to volunteer in Uganda in a naïve but earnest attempt to do some good in the world. Staged by Diane Paulus, the hot creative director of the ART, this show is likely to end up on Broadway and though I’m not making any predictions, it has a RENT-like feel to it that may just capture some serious attention in New York.
Is making a commercially-viable, entertaining musical a sell-out of the eclectic traditions of the ART? Perhaps. I’m not a long-time ART watcher though some friends who were subscribers tell me that much of the fare had wandered so far out on the lunatic fringe prior to Paulus’ arrival that they gave up their subscriptions. They couldn’t bear to walk out of the theater one more time scratching their heads and wondering what the heck they had just experienced. If Paulus is steering the ship a bit more toward the mainstream, why is that a bad thing?
Witness Uganda is about the spirit of trying to save the world, absorbing all the painful realities that inevitably accompany such altruistic endeavors, and embracing the small but significant victories that may emerge with persistence and love. Is it corny? Sure. Does that disqualify it from providing an amazing evening of entertainment that included several moments of tearful exultation? Not hardly.
Maybe audience reaction is not relevant for Bill but on the night I saw the show, its last Saturday night before closing, the audience leaped out of its seats with a mighty roar and offered a loud and sustained ovation for the immensely talented cast. It was a goose-bump moment and I love goose-bump moments when I go to see a musical. There are way too few of those.
I will agree with Bill on one point. The show glosses quickly over Uganda’s anti-gay hysteria that is one of the most immoral and disturbing crises in the world. Given that Matthews is gay and had to make significant and risky choices to spend so much time in Uganda, it is curious that he didn’t find a more provocative way to address this nightmarish scenario. One answer: that is not what the show is about. In fact, the show is in some ways a two-hour promotion for the UgandaProject, a non-profit support organization Gould and Matthews created to pay for the education of Ugandan youth.
In the meantime, I will be watching closely to see what happens with the production. It may end up on Broadway or just tour around to regional theaters as it builds an audience. Either way, it was way better than my esteemed colleague would make you believe. If you ever do get a chance to see it, leave your cynicism at the door and prepare to be dazzled.
Any second thoughts now that Griffin Matthews has equated Diane Paulus with Amy Cooper? https://www.onstageblog.com/onstage-blog-news/2020/6/5/director-diane-paulus-apologizes-to-griffin-matthews-for-racist-incidents-during-show
Actions speak louder than words when you have been caught out. Matthews’ video went viral.
Here is what I wrote on Facebook: American Repertory Theater Artistic Director Diane Paulus — accused of racism by a black theater artist. She is a revealing study in rich white liberal hypocrisy, a woman more concerned with making profit than art. Our theater critics and media have been Paulus sycophants from the beginning — a major regional American theater has become little more a Broadway try-out venue. But big money and elite privilege exerts a powerful hold over weak minds. Harvard University and the A.R.T. can do so much better. Time for a change…
I just got this comment from a reader: “I reread your review and just wanted to note that while, of course, you couldn’t have known what was going on behind the scenes, I found your review so interesting in how you were definitely sensing something in the right direction as far as zeroing in on Diane Paulus’ shaping and “developing” a potentially edgy piece into something safe for white liberal consumption.”
That is exactly why I wanted this review to be read after Griffin Matthews charged Paulus with racism. An additional irony: Paulus directed Claudia Rankine’s 2018 The White Card, an Arts Emerson/A.R.T. presentation that, like Witness Uganda, also made white racism “safe for white liberal consumption.” (From my review: “The White Card‘s examination of white philanthropy and racism stays well within the comfort zone.”) That is what Paulus does — she picks a social issue, such as racism, and exploits it for its branding/grant/Broadway profit-making opportunities. Paulus DIRECTED The White Card, a play about rich white people making money off of racism. And now we have Matthews accusing her of the same sin. Of course, our herd of independent stage critics fell for The White Card as hard as they tumbled for Witness Uganda.
I wonder what Rankine thought about working with Paulus on the world premiere production of her play? Somebody (The Boston Globe?) should ask her and others — Paulus has worked with a number of black performers over the years. I have not read any ringing defenses in her behalf — at least so far.
Okay. But at the time you wrote: “There are those in and out of Harvard University who do not like where Paulus is taking the A.R.T. The anger strikes me as somewhat overwrought — she is making the powers-that-be happy. ” Maybe that anger wasn’t so overwrought after all.
I see what you mean. In 2014 I took a stoic position — “this too shall pass.” Little did I realize that Paulus was like an immovable kidney stone — more pain and more time was coming than I realized.