BY MADISON TAYLOR
Last week, I had the chance to see Witness Uganda at the American Repertory Theater. I didn’t know much about the show before I went, only that it was inspired by one of its creator’s experience volunteering in Uganda. An email I received from the ART read “Witness Uganda is inspired by the true story of Griffin Matthews and his creation of the nonprofit UgandaProject, a grassroots aid organization that sponsors the education of 10 Ugandan students including their tuition, food, housing, and basic needs.” A piece of creative theater about a true story — it sounded interesting. Some further research on the ART website led to a description of the plot saying “When Griffin, a young man from New York City, volunteers for a project in Uganda, he finds himself on a journey that will change his life forever. Inspired by a true story, this rousing new musical, staged by Tony Award-winning director and A.R.T. Artistic Director Diane Paulus, exposes the challenges confronted by American aid workers and the complex realities of trying to change the world.”
A musical devised from real life events meant to educate and inspire the audience? I wasn’t quite sure what to expect — was I going to see the kind of Pippin-esque musical that seems to be typical of the ART, full of spectacles, dramatic lighting, intricate costumes, wonderful acting, massive sets, and acrobatics? Or was I going to hear a story about the hardships taking place in Uganda? Several of my friends had already seen Witness Uganda, and it was the first time I’d heard anything but universally glowing reviews about an ART show. Some of them raved that it was an inspirational story, and others complained that it didn’t live up to the high artistic standards of past ART productions. Even before I walked into the theater, I was therefore confused about what the show was trying to be — an inspirational story or a quality piece of theater. Could it be both?
I won’t claim to be a professional theater critic of any sort, but I’ve seen my fair share of shows from elementary school stages to Broadway. So I felt that I had a good base of theatrical experience to which I could compare Witness Uganda. And as I left the theater, I understood both of the opinions I’d heard from my friends — I was completely inspired to find a way to make a difference in the world, but I also was conflicted about the “piece-of-theater” side of things. In my opinion, in many ways it was a very typical ART production. The moving set, the beautiful projections, the costumes, and the lighting were wonderful. All of the technical aspects of the show were very high quality and created a believable world. The music was also fantastic, full of soaring melodies, moving lyrics, and catchy rhythms. But two features felt somewhat subpar for the quality of theater people have come to expect from the ART. The first was the book, or dialogue, of the show. It needed more work — the story and lines didn’t always flow naturally, and some of the dialogue felt stilted or like it was trying too hard to either make a joke or make a point. The second piece that left me wanting was the staging. While much of it was natural and often touching, some of the movement and positioning of, and interaction between, the actors on stage felt forced and occasionally overly dramatic in a stereotypical “musical theater” way. This was definitely not what I expected from a Tony Award winning director.
I left conflicted for two reasons. First, although the show was not the best theater from a purely artistic viewpoint that I’ve seen at the ART, I can’t remember being more inspired to help people or hearing such a powerful story and message. Second, I knew that this show was coming to life for the first time on this stage, and that they’d still been working on and revising it just a few weeks prior to the performance I saw. So I found myself wondering if Witness Uganda’s infancy and emotional power excuse what I personally felt was a not-fully-ready performance that could have used a few more weeks of work. In other words, was it ok for the ART to put on a less artistically developed, though incredibly inspiring, show for paying customers who expect top-quality theater?
Where do we draw the line between spectacle and story, and how do we define successful theater? There seems to be a consumer trend today towards big, bold, almost over-the-top musicals in the Pippin, Wicked, and Kinky Boots vein. But as Witness Uganda is trying to turn a true story into theater and inspire others simply through that story, is it fair to expect the same “spectacle standard” from them? Aren’t big acrobatic dance numbers, hilarious one-liners, and larger-than-life sets inappropriate amongst the actual events in the retelling of Griffin’s story? Perhaps it’s reasonable to expect a book that was a little more refined than the one I saw, but again, if those were the true-to-life words of Griffin’s story, is it so reasonable? As I wasn’t in the rehearsal room, I also can’t say how much of the staging was trying to echo the truth of these situations and how much was done for the visual or dramatic effect. So where does that leave the audience members like me who left inspired but conflicted? Were we justified in feeling that way, or were we expecting too much and maybe appreciating too little of the truth of the story?
In the end, Witness Uganda was a show I’d see again, and one I enjoyed. It really made me think about how theater can be used as a vessel for change, a way to expose people to issues far removed from their daily lives and hopefully to inspire them to make a difference. I think that if Griffin and Matt, the creators, and the creative team continue to develop the show, it has huge potential to become the ideal combination of a quality musical and a true story, and I am excited to see what its future holds.
Madison Taylor ’16 (madisontaylor@college) is very happy she gets to see shows to write for the Indy (can she do that forever?), and can’t wait for Spring’s warm weather to arrive!