Image from "Witness Uganda". Photo by Kevin Parry.

by Cynthia Citron

It starts off like a house on fire.  Then after a while they burn down the library.  But we’ll get to that later.
A dozen African-American artists begin by blasting out an enthusiastic melodious chant in one of the Ugandan languages, followed by a spirited dance that even Jerome Robbins would envy.  All flailing arms and flying legs, accompanied by more chanting.

I don’t know if the dancing, choreographed by Abdur-Rahim Jackson, is a version of a ceremonial dance native to Uganda, as is common in many African countries.  For example, Ethiopian dancers specifically focus on intense movements of the shoulders; miners in South Africa perform by stamping their feet rhythmically in the “gum boots” they wear in the mines; and the tall Masai warriors of Kenya specialize in continuous high jumps.
At any rate, this new documentary musical, “Witness Uganda”, intersperses these new dance sequences with original “mood” songs created by Matt Gould, co-writer and music director, to express the changing emotions of the characters.  The other creator and director, Griffin Matthews, has based the play on his own experiences in Uganda following his founding of the UgandaProject in 2005. Thus the hero, played by Jamar Williams, is named Griffin.

As a young man growing up in New York, Griffin aspired to provide something meaningful and helpful to the world.  But, as his Ugandan counterpart acknowledges early in the play, “I didn’t change the world, the world changed me.”

Nevertheless, Griffin began his odyssey by responding to an advertisement for volunteers and was soon on his way to Uganda, where he was assigned to teach young people to read.  This work was made more problematic, however, when he discovered that in order to teach, he would first have to build a school.
He also discovered that his prospective students harbored a great disdain for Americans, mainly because the Americans they had encountered were tourists who had come to gawk at them. And he also had to face the disapproval of the village priest and the woman who played a leading part in the affairs of the community. “Stop teaching and start listening,” she advised him.

Another handicap he faced was the fact that he was gay.  Apparently he had come to Uganda without being aware that the law that “President for Life” Idi Amin had authorized years earlier was still in effect.  It decreed that gay persons were to be put to death. As Griffin was told, “We don’t want those people in Uganda.”
Eventually, however, he teamed up with a young white American woman named Ryan (Emma Hunton) and together they gathered the funding that their impoverished students needed in order to attend Ugandan schools.  They also managed to take some of them on a visit to the fabled city of New York, where they joined their American peers in a march for civil rights and waved large placards which identified the rights that the New Yorkers were demanding.

Returning to Uganda, they discovered that someone had set fire to the local library and a great many people were standing by and shouting “Burn it up!  Burn it up!” But Griffin’s students had learned the value of books and reading and learning, and by the end of the play they stood proudly and, one by one, recited their life achievements.

Most of them had gone to college and many had earned graduate degrees.  They had become professionals in a variety of fields, such as medicine and social work, and all in all, had confirmed that a determined effort like Griffin’s UgandaProject can indeed change the world.

And Griffin himself, often accompanied by his partner, Gould, returned to Uganda every year for the next 15 to continue the work.

“Witness Uganda,” with all its vigorous dancing and sweetly melodious songs, can be enjoyed weekdays at 8pm, Saturdays at 2:30 and 8pm, and Sundays at 2:30 and 7:30pm through February 23rd at the Lovelace Studio Theater at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 North Santa Monica Blvd, in Beverly Hills.  For tickets, call (310) 746-4000 or online at TheWallis.org/Witness

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