“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.