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Review: “Witness Uganda” – Wallis Annenberg

Opening Night Review 2/8/19 – Lovelace Studio Theater – – Wallis Center For the Performing Arts

The Wallis Center For the Performing Arts Complex in Beverly Hills has several venues. “Witness Uganda” billed as a ‘documentary musical’ is being showcased in the Lovelace Studio theater. A relatively small arena. Instead of theatre in the round this is more like theater in the rectangle where the audience is seated on both of the longer sides facing each other with the performing area in the middle between them and both ends which also houses the band.

To say that the performance was the center of attention is literally the truth.  It’s almost like we were part of the performance and the first row often was. It’s called a ‘documentary musical’ because it’s about the experiences its creators MATT GOULD and GRIFFIN MATHEWS actually had. Mainly Griffin Matthews who is the lead character.

I say all this because what I witnessed was a high voltage, high energy, high decibel piece of musical theater that I will never forget. It has everything I’d ever want in an evening of entertainment. Fantastic singing and dancing. Incredible ensembles of both. Great based on real life characters. Conflict. Heart and humor, with a message. Many messages.

GRIFFIN, the lead character, is based on GRIFFIN MATTHEWS experiences going to Uganda.  An African-American protagonist (confronted by ‘African-Africans’ in Uganda) GRIFFIN is also gay. A striving musical theater performer in New York City who finds himself kicked out of his church for being gay. I know this is set in 2005, but I accept the fact that this really happened, but this reviewer who is from New York City finds it a little hard to believe at face value that Griffin would be kicked out of his church for being gay and that would have such a devastating effect on him. Granted, he’s naïve, as the rest of the plot points out. Griffin is so devastated by the injustice and inhumanity, from a church no less, that he wants out of the country. And winds up in Uganda. Knowing little about the country or the culture – or the politics. Where he finds injustice and inhumanity. How did he wind up in Uganda? He saw an ad seeking volunteers to go to Uganda and build a school. He’s in. Packs up his bags and with his attractive female room-mate Ryan spends all his savings and goes to Uganda in the belief that there is no better gift you can give to children than an education. What could be more basic than to build a school in a poor village in Uganda? Only it’s Griffin who gets the education. His “good intentions” are tested against the backdrop of an incurable AIDS epidemic fueling the lethal anti-gay sentiment and corruption, from of all places the Church, questioning everything he has ever known.

For me, I can’t point to a weak link in it. The music. The lyrics. The book filled with touches of humor, character comedy – the best kind, and emotion. The suspension of disbelief I had when a few prop steps became a school on a hill.

It’s a complex musical made simple and easy to digest. After a successful, off-Broadway run this is a new and revised production. The only minor quibble I had is a technical issue. Because the venue is so small, oftentimes the orchestra, especially the piano, drowned out the singers who were giving it their all. But there are so many characters and so many instruments that have to be mic’d that that might not be as easy to fix as one might think. But I hope they get a handle on it. And learn from each performance.

Outstanding performances by JAMAR WILLIAMS who plays the real-life Griffin and is on-stage most of the time, singing, dancing, climbing. AMBER IMAN is Joy, an ironic character name to be sure. She is the voice of authority. The adult to these kids and the constant reminder of the oppressive PASTOR who we never see but don’t need to we see the results of his/or her oppression, if he even exists or is some representation of a spiritual being. Perhaps a light bulb that often follows them around and who they seem to pray to.

EMMA HINTON is the mid-=twenties RYAN and Griffin’s, blonde, ballsy Caucasian room-mate who also has performing ambitions which she put on hold to accompany Griffin to Uganda. This gives the opportunity for the Ugandans to perceive Griffin as straight. Heaven forbid he should be gay. That could be a capital offense in Uganda which Griffin was unaware of. KEMERON RICHARDSON is (Jacob) a Ugandan who is forced to suppresses his sexuality by Joy, his older sister and guardian, who he lives with.

It’s hard to single anyone of the supporting performances out. Brilliantly cast by BINDER CASTING. They are all outstanding and each a clearly defined character and piece of the puzzle. DEXTER DARDEN as Ibrahim. JORDAN BARROW as Ronny. SHA’LEAH NIKOLE STUBBHLEFIELD as Eden. NAARAI as Grace. A slightly overweight girl who envisions herself a runway model someday. She has the energy and moves with the Grace of one in spite of her size. KEENAN D. WASHINGTON. ANTWONE BARNES. THURZDAY. And JAI’LEN JOSEY who also understudies for the roles of RAIN LADY/CHURCH LADY, normally played by JAI’LEN JOSEY, at this performance. All are stand-outs as the part of the singing and dancing ensembles. The vocal blending, harmonies, and counter-points tight as can be.

That’s a lot of bodies moving about quickly for one small area, but it is staged and directed dynamically by GRIFFIN MATTHEWS who co-wrote this musical adaptation of his story with MATT GOULD who was also the musical director and in view the whole time at the piano.

The LIGHTING DESIGN by David Hernandez was worthy of a bigger arena. COSTUMES by Carlton Jones. The closing number costumes alone were authentic to see colorful and fantastic to see. The SET DESIGN by Connor MacPhee made use of every inch of the stage more than once by using movable platforms and steps on wheels and even the piano became part of the choreography while MATTHEW continued to play.

Extended through March 3rd, 2019. Tickets And Information: This production was on Opening Night, February 8th, 2019 at Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in the Lovelace Studio Theater.

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