A musical in the making stops at Eccles Center
November 4, 2014
Although it was just the scaled down two-man version of the full-scale production, the performance of "Witness Uganda" that lit up the Eccles stage on Saturday was not lacking in hope, humor, or power. Audience members sat riveted throughout, laughing at some parts and silent during others. When the performers left the stage, they had plenty to think about.
"Witness Uganda," created by Griffin Matthews and Matt Gould, is a soon-to-be Broadway musical about the difficulties of trying to make a difference. It was inspired by Matthews’ efforts raise money to help pay school tuition fees for Ugandan children.
"My story is really simple. I got invited to go to Uganda in the summer of 2005. I didn’t know what to expect," explained Mathews.
During his six weeks abroad Matthews said he began tutoring a group of local teenagers, many orphans as a result of that country’s AIDs crisis, who wanted nothing more than an education. Although he was a "23-year-old broke actor living in New York," Mathews resolved to return to Uganda with the money they would need to return to school.
Beyond the inherent complications in raising money for and managing a project overseas, Matthews and Gould found themselves conflicted as gay men working in a country with laws where being gay — or associating with someone who was gay — is considered a crime punishable by life in prison. Of particular concern was the danger Matthews’ and Gould’s relationship might pose for their students.
"We had a really emotional conversation with them and we talked about what the risks are, the very real risks, that if they are associated with us — that that could be a problem," recalled Gould. Although they gave the students the option of distancing themselves, upon returning to America Matthews and Gould discovered that their students had, instead, uploaded photos with Matthews and Gould onto Facebook.
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"It was quite moving for us because I think it was their silent protest," said Gould.
Despite the heaviness of some of the show’s topics, Matthews and Gould were funny and charismatic. They kicked off the show with a humorous dialogue about their brief taste of Utah, including mistaking families awaiting returning missionaries as fans waiting to greet them at the airport, and gasping over oxygen tanks during their first rehearsal at Park City’s altitude.
During the show, Matthews paused to thank their four hastily assembled band members. Among them was Brett Howard, a senior at Park City High School who has been playing the bass for seven years. Howard was asked to perform for "Witness Uganda" by Bret Hughes, director of percussion at PCHS, and found that becoming a part of the show changed his own perspective on international aid.
"It opened my eyes and made me realize that Uganda is not just a Third-World country to feel bad for. There are people there and they aren’t whining for help, but they could use a little support," explained Howard who described performing with Matthews and Gould as "really cool.
"I had no idea who they were or what they were doing until the day before the show. They were hilarious and really nice guys to work with," said Howard. He added that he admired the duo’s ability to play up their strengths. "They are theatre buffs and they are creating a musical to draw attention to a topic that is really dear to them."