When 23-year old Griffin Matthews was kicked out of his church choir for being gay, he couldn’t have known it would launch him on a path that would change his life.
At the time, he was an actor in New York, struggling and broke, but the expulsion stung him so deeply that he bought a one-way ticket to volunteer in Uganda.
Now, years later, the theatre dream project that grew from the seed planted by that fateful decision is about to have its West Coast Premiere.
“Witness Uganda,” billed as a “documentary musical,” is the story of Matthews’ experiences in Africa; how he hoped that to help better people’s lives in a place where he could explore who he was, only to learn that the school-building program was corrupt – and how he turned his disillusionment around after meeting a group of local children who couldn’t afford the cost of schooling, and deciding to set up a makeshift classroom and teach them himself.
Matthews co-wrote the show with Matt Gould, another African volunteer he met after a mutual friend connected them.
“We met in New York,” says Matthews. “Matt had been a Peace Corps volunteer in West Africa for two years while I was working in Uganda, and one of our friends said, ‘Hey there’s another guy in musical theatre who’s been to Africa and is really passionate about it, you guys should meet!’ And when we met it was like – immediate chemistry.”
The two became partners – both in the romantic and creative sense. They’ve been together for twelve years, married for two.
“We had so much to talk about,” Matthews continues, “and we were also trying to figure out what to do about the fact that we’d seen all these things.”
The answer they came up with was “Witness Uganda,” a show they originally conceived as a fundraiser to benefit the Uganda Project, a non-profit Matthews set up in 2005 to pay for the education, food, and health care of the Ugandan children he had taken under his wing – most of whom have now completed high school and are finishing up college. The show took on a life of its own and eventually enjoyed an Off-Broadway run – though that production met with mixed feelings from its creators.
As Matthews explains it, “It’s really difficult to get a raw story out when people are swirling around to make it commercial, to clean it up for audiences.”
Gould elaborates, “We felt that audiences were ready for something grittier, something that felt more authentic than just a cartoon on stage.”
So, for the show’s rebirth in Los Angeles, the two have reworked things to get back in line with their original vision, and Matthews himself has stepped into the director’s chair.
“I always had a vision for what I thought the show could be,” says Matthews. “It’s been a humbling journey for me to step into the director’s space and try and put the vision forward.”
He also says that “Witness Uganda” has taken on an added urgency in the new world that has developed since he and Gould began the project in 2008.
“When this show premiered, to be completely honest, he says, “we were under a very different administration.”
He continues, “Now there’s this great division, and political uproar over borders and of how we’re dealing with our neighbors all over the world. I think the show tackles some of those issues head on.”
“We like to brand it as a protest piece,” he adds.
Politics aside, Gould says, their show is ultimately a personal story.
“Certain facts have been conflated,” he says, “some things are condensed – but this is Griffin’s experience, going over there and meeting this group of kids, and finding out that doing aid work and helping people can be really… complicated.”
Bringing “Witness Uganda” into 2019 has also underscored the positive cultural changes that have occurred for queer people of color since they began working on it.
Matthews says, “When we started writing this, there were two places for queer men of color to go in the theatre – either ‘butch up’ and be a ‘leading man,’ or put on a dress and heels. If you were anything in between, you were in the chorus.”
Television has played an important role in changing that status quo. As an actor, Matthews is also a regular on the Netflix series, “Dear White People,” and he says his experience there has been joyful.
He gushes, “For the first time in my career I’m playing a gay man of color who is not the side character. I have a full storyline, I have a full existence. It’s been so moving to be working on a show where I feel seen – where it’s not just, ‘Come in and be sassy.’”
Even if “the culture is shifting,” he adds, “you still don’t see queer actors of color in musicals, leading the charge. We are still trying to break that barrier, to say that our stories are valid, our expressions of self are valid, and we’re actually not that different from you.”
With “Witness Uganda,” Matthews and Gould are doing their part to work for that goal. With a cast rich in performers of color, a song score drawing on influence from African musical tradition, and script featuring the experience of a queer black man as the center of its multi-cultural narrative, it provides an opportunity for many oft-disregarded voices to be expressed – and its creators have worked to make it as authentic as possible.
“I think the goal is to get the grittiest, dirtiest, sexiest version of the story that we can tell,” says Gould. “We want audiences to come in and feel – not that they’ve seen a show, but that they’ve had an experience, they’ve been to this place that we had the opportunity to spend time in.”
As for Matthews, he says, “For me it was always a piece that wanted to be a conversation-starter, to ask questions and ask the audience to think about what the answers are for them personally.”
He’s quick to add, “I’m hoping audiences come away inspired, and also feeling hopeful again.”
Of course, the two also want their show to entertain – and with a cast that includes 12-time Grammy nominee Ledisi (“an amazing goddess,” says Gould), Jamar Williams, Amber Iman, and Emma Hunton, they feel sure it will.
As Gould puts it, “I think it’s going to be an experience that folks in L.A. won’t have had before.”