Good intentions in ‘Witness Uganda’

Matthew Griffin and the cast of "Witness Uganda." (Credit: GretjenHelenePhotography.com)
Matthew Griffin and the cast of “Witness Uganda.” (Credit: GretjenHelenePhotography.com)

There’s no denying that the American Repertory Theater’s world premiere of “Witness Uganda” is a rousing, spirited production that challenges you to think.

Unfortunately, you can get so caught up in the emotional wallop of the piece courtesy of the studied, almost sleight of hand direction of the extraordinary Diane Paulus, that you only notice the book’s shortcomings well after the fact.

The semi-autobiographical tale of Griffin’s (co-creator Griffin Matthews) post-baccalaureate search for meaning in his life leads him to Uganda where, as a relief worker, he confronts the challenges of attempting to change the world. He’s also gay, which poses an entirely different set of challenges in the lethally homophobic environs of Uganda.

Griffin opts to exploit rather than explore the issues of sexuality with clichés, caustic, eye-rolling quips and delivery of lines like “I’m a tenor” with a flamboyance not unlike Jack in TV’s “Will and Grace.” Authentic exploration of the truth seems to have gotten lost in the kind of sass that breeds age-old stereotypes.

The piece also teeters on melodramatic at times, though Paulus thankfully keeps it from becoming a cartoonish tale populated by larger-than-life superheroes.

Matthews nicely captures the Ugandan reaction to young American aid workers through Joy (Adeola Role) who tearfully bids them farewell then immediately forgets them. Most only visit once, and rarely listen.

Griffin does create change, but only when he learns how to go about it. The real teachers are the students, who are played with compassion and compelling authenticity.

While their stories and this impressive production will inspire you, it feels like something’s missing at the core of “Witness Uganda.”

“Witness Uganda”
Through March 16th
American Repertory Theater
64 Brattle St., Cambridge
$25-$85, 617-547-8300
www.AmericanRepertoryTheater.org



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