Review: "Uganda" Is Energetic, Poignant, Impassioned

Feb. 11, 2019 | By Bruce R. Feldman

"Witness Uganda," The Wallis, Beverly Hills, Feb. 4-23, 2019

In Brief: Energetic, often poignant, always bursting with unarguable creativity and talent. One young man’s attempt to help others halfway around the globe becomes a journey of self-discovery and redemption, as well as the basis for a stirring musical pulsing with infectious African rhythms.

Witness Uganda isn’t exactly what it appears to be at first glance. Its creators call the show “A Documentary Musical.” That’s an apt but inadequate description, and a rather dry one for a lively, engrossing, evocative piece that’s about a good deal more than corruption, injustice, and prejudice in the East African nation.

The company in "Witness Uganda" at The Wallis (Photo: Kevin Parry)

While events in the impoverished country figure prominently, the authors, Matt Gould and Griffin Matthews, shine their brightest light on its leading character’s multi-year journey of self-discovery.

The play recounts the experience of Matthews, who, just out of college, traveled to Uganda as a volunteer to build a school for a church. He quickly saw that the pastor (whom we never see on stage, but whose presence is mightily felt) abused disciples and ran a sham operation that profited from the money and efforts of the volunteers. Ugandan authorities looked the other way.

At the same time, Matthews, who is called Griffin in the musical and is played appealingly by Jamar Williams, got to know a group of seemingly indifferent teens living in the village. They pretended not to want to attend high school. In truth, they had dreams and ambitions for a better life but couldn’t afford the tuition, as education isn’t free in Uganda. Griffin tutored them every morning, angering the pastor and his imposing aide, Joy (a terrific Amber Iman), and further deepening the tensions that had already started to develop.

"Witness Uganda" is a stirring musical pulsing with infectious African rhythms.

Griffin was also drawn to one student in particular, Jacob (Kameron Richardson), but it’s not clear if his interest was avuncular or romantic. This last is particularly problematic because the authors make it clear that homosexuality is not tolerated in Uganda. Gays are shunned and sometimes stoned to death.

Sitting on a powder keg about to blow up, Griffin now has several dilemmas: Should he be true to himself and face harsh punishment or keep quiet so he can continue to help the kids? Where will he get the money to fund years of tuition for the ten students? And what about his own life, acting career, and friendships back in New York?

The stage is set for a series of dramatic confrontations and stinging revelations. At first naive, then defiant, then confused, Griffin must understand and deal with the consequences of his choices.

Jamar Williams as Griffin in "Witness Uganda" (Photo: Sean Daniels - DVR Productions)

Gould and Matthews express all of this in a series of engaging African-inflected musical numbers, either vibrant or soulful, occasionally funny, but always impassioned. Abdur-Rahim Jackson’s vigorous choreography makes the most of the small performance space at The Wallis's Lovelace Studio Theater. Sets are minimal. David Hernandez’s artful lighting nicely fills in the blanks.

The 13-member cast is uniformly impressive. In addition to the amiable Williams and commanding Iman, Emma Hunton is a standout as Griffin’s college friend, Ryan. So is the big-voiced Ledisi, in a memorable, soulful performance as the church pastor back in America who embraces Griffin’s homosexuality and teaches him to accept himself.

Matthews’s confident direction knits all of this together skillfully as it builds to an inexorable, emotionally powerful conclusion. Gould played piano and led the four-piece band with artistry, enthusiasm, and visible determination, coaxing a bigger sound out of the small group than might be expected.

“Witness Uganda,” The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 746-4000, www.thewallis.org