When he flew to Uganda in 2005, Griffin Matthews was just trying to help some kids at a local orphanage. But he wound up starting his own nonprofit, Uganda Project, to support 10 orphans who couldn’t afford to pay for school. Donations from the U.S. dried up during the financial crisis of 2008-09 so Matthews and his partner, Matt Gould—both of whom had studied music and theater in college—organized a benefit concert, a “musical infomercial” as Gould describes it, to raise money.
That first show broke even, but the reactions from the audience encouraged them to keep working on their ideas. The result is “Witness Uganda,” which premiered at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge in February. The semi-autobiographical show is about a gay black man named Griffin who travels to Uganda and meets a group of orphans who need his help. During the final week of the show’s sold-out run, Gould and Matthews came to the Nieman Foundation to talk about their experiences as gay men working in Uganda and the creative process behind the show.
Although the plot of the show is based on Matthews’s experience in Uganda, he stressed that its creation was a group effort—”a bunch of people in a room throwing ideas onto the floor”—with the director, choreographer and the rest of the creative team contributing to the final product. He says he did feel strongly that the show needed to be told from the perspective of a gay black man because that experience is rarely shown onstage, or in film or television. “We wanted that to be really, really prominent inside of the storytelling because it’s a new voice to the theater and a chance for another audience to come into the theater,” he said. “My hope is that other kids like me when I was 17, or even adults, will come to the theater and see me and think, ‘That’s my story in front of me. I don’t have to translate it.'”
Gould and Matthews also performed a signature piece from the show, “Bricks.” The song—based on some of Matthews’s impassioned descriptions of his non-profit’s mission—was originally written in Pular, a language Gould learned while serving in the Peace Corps in Mauritania, and then translated into Luganda, the major language of Uganda. “In my mind, music is a very abstract thing,” Gould says of the composition process. “It reaches a place that goes past your brain, into your core. So when I hear him ranting about ‘It’s not about this!’ that goes through my body” and became, Gould explained, the rhythmic chanting of the song’s chorus.
The pair also spoke about the media attention the show has attracted, and some of the unfortunate errors reporters have made while writing about their work. “I would almost say 95 percent of the articles written about us, there’s an incorrect something in it,” Matthews said. “How much weight can I give this review or this article when the Tony Award-winning [American Repertory Theater director] Diane Paulus’s name is spelled wrong?”