It’s a gray Sunday, and actor Griffin Matthews is pacing the pews at Saint Peter’s Anglican Church of Uganda in Waltham, checking the acoustics. “I’m doing the sermon,’’ he says with a hint of trepidation. “Not too much pressure.”
Matthews, who boasts a heavenly tenor and a degree in drama from Carnegie Mellon University, is no stranger to performance. He has performed off-Broadway and at regional theaters and has also directed musicals. He and his partner, the composer Matt Gould, spent two weeks last fall touring area schools to introduce students to their new musical, “Witness Uganda,” which begins performances Tuesday and runs through March 16 at the American Repertory Theater. But this particular presentation is critical. The musical tells the story of their efforts to put 10 Ugandan orphans through school. “This is the most important audience of all,’’ Matthews says. “We want Ugandans to come see the play.”
When the wiry actor is introduced, his pre-performance jitters melt away. “I am feeling very crazy. Oyo mulalu!” he says, sprinkling his speech with phrases in Luganda, the major language of Uganda. “I haven’t seen so many Ugandans except in Uganda.” Waltham, it turns out, has a large Ugandan population, enough to earn it the title of “Little Kampala.”
With Gould accompanying on the piano, the actor launches into his dramatic song-filled “sermon,” explaining that he first went to Uganda in 2005 to volunteer at an orphanage. “I am clearly not Ugandan. I am a black American,’’ he says. Matthews explains that he left the orphanage and met a group of teenagers who called him “muzungu.” “I had flown all the way across the world, and I was white,” he recalls, amid laughter. The youngsters asked him to teach them, since they had no money to pay for school. He has supported them ever since.
After the performance, Matthews and Gould are peppered with questions. Will they sponsor more students? How can people help? Uganda native and activist Rosette Serwanga, who happened to be at the church that day to raise awareness about AIDS, wants to know if she can collaborate with them. “It really must be challenging for them, not speaking the language and being in an African culture,’’ she says later. “I am impressed that they have been able to do this.”
Matthews certainly didn’t expect to find himself preaching at a Massachusetts church when he first got on a plane to Uganda back in 2005. Fresh out of college, he was undergoing a crisis of faith and a search for identity. He was raised in a churchgoing family and had recently come out to his parents. “Listen, my parents were very supportive, but it sparked lots of conversation,’’ he says. “I had some issues in the church, big ones. It was traumatic.”
The autobiographical musical condenses eight years of Matthews’s life into a two-year span. It begins in New York, where a disillusioned young man named Griffin (“He’s mostly me,” Matthews says) tells a friend that he is sick of pounding the pavement as an actor and is heading off to Uganda to work with orphans. He is going through a crisis, because he was recently ejected from his church choir because of his homosexuality. The story goes back and forth from New York to a village in Uganda, where the earnest American encounters corruption at an orphanage. He befriends a group of youngsters and ends up as their teacher, because they can’t afford school, which is not free in Uganda. When he returns to New York, he can’t get the kids out of his mind, and he works around the clock to raise money to pay for their education. The musical doesn’t sugarcoat this kind of aid work: There are disappointments and pitfalls, and one student’s story does not have a happy ending.
Early versions of the musical did not address the theme of Matthews’s sexuality. “No, no, no,” he says, explaining that he was initially reluctant to write about the painful experience of being rejected by his church. But as the musical evolved, he felt it was critical to the tale. “As a writer, you want to put your deepest, darkest experience on the page because you are actually sharing something that is hard and someone else might be going through,’’ he says.
Gay rights is a hot-button issue in Uganda, where homosexual activity is illegal and, in some cases, carries a prison penalty. Recent legislation there has been the subject of protests by human rights groups.
“When I first went to Uganda, my life was focused on, ‘I am gay, and what am I going to do?’ ’’ Matthews says. But he had an epiphany when he met the teenagers in a small village about 15 miles outside of Kampala, the nation’s capital. “I was sitting on a hill staring at Lake Victoria with these kids who had all lost their parents, and I realized that there has to be something bigger than my sexuality.”
That something turned out to be education, and since that initial trip, Matthews has raised $50,000 a year to pay for the kids’ schooling. And while the musical is autobiographical, it probes deeper issues than one young man’s search for self. It asks universal questions about the American impulse to help and whether it’s possible to instill change. Gould, who served in the Peace Corps in Mauritania, listened to his partner gripe about his frustrations with raising money for the kids and suggested that they collaborate on a musical about his nonprofit organization, the Uganda Project. “Griff said it was the worst idea he ever heard,” Gould says. But the idea eventually took hold, and now they work as a team, sharing equal responsibility for supporting the students.
The two artists have performed numerous concert versions and staged readings of the musical, which won the prestigious 2012 Richard Rodgers Award for Musical Theater. It also received a Disney/ASCAP workshop with composer Stephen Schwartz and a workshop at the Vineyard Arts Project. Given the awards and acclaim, it caught the attention of ART artistic director Diane Paulus. “The music knocked me out,’’ she says. “It didn’t sound like anything I had heard before.”
The music blends African rhythms with a contemporary Western beat. It is a reflection of the sounds heard in Uganda, which range from traditional music to pop artists like Taylor Swift and Beyoncé. “I once heard — what’s her name? — Dolly Parton,’’ Gould says. “For nine hours on a bus ride in Uganda.”
Paulus has never been to Africa, but she has immersed herself in research about such tiny details as how Ugandan villagers wash clothes and how they carry bananas. Early in the process, the cast and creative team talked via Skype with the students in Uganda. That experience made a big impression on choreographer Darrell Grand Moultrie.
“It was so amazing. You could tell how much they all love each other,’’ he says. “It sunk in. Wow, this is special. This is not just a musical. This is about people living and breathing every day.”
Moultrie is intimately familiar with the urge to help. The Harlem-born choreographer went to South Africa in 2008 to teach young dancers. He arranged scholarships for two of his students to train in New York at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. One thrived, but another struggled and returned home early. “You try to make change, but it is not always meant to be wrapped up in a bow,” he says. “The question is, ‘Is change possible?’ It is — but only if you’re open to failure.”
After every performance, Matthews and Gould will hold talkbacks and ask the audience to ponder that question. “We want to open up a dialogue about our responsibility in the world and about gay issues,” Gould says. “If we only talk to our friends, we are preaching to the choir.” That was the purpose of their visit to the Waltham church in November, but since then, the church has reorganized and moved to Belmont. ART lost touch with the church, but reached out this week and offered discounted tickets to the congregation.
Change, the two artists have discovered, happens through personal encounters such as the one at the church. They deliberately didn’t address the subject of sexuality while in church, but they are eager for the parishioners to be part of the larger discussion, whatever their opinions. They also have not directly told the Ugandan students that they are gay, but they have had conversations about homophobia with some of the older students, who can easily find articles like this one online. “One of our students said, ‘I think homosexuality in Uganda is like racism in America. It will evolve. It will take time,’ ’’ Gould says. “My head exploded. It made me choke. This is a Ugandan kid who we have sent to school.”
Matthews, 32, and Gould, 34, sound like doting parents when they talk about the 10 young people they continue to support. They talk via Skype every day. One student is in medical school. Another is a nurse. And one student moved to Australia, found a job and a wife, and recently had a child. “We are grandparents!” Matthews says. “That is insane to me.” Oyo mulalu.
They are also proud that their kids have embraced the message of the musical. On a recent trip to Uganda, they took the students to visit an impoverished village. The young orphans felt an urge to help. “That is the message,” Matthews says. “You do not have to be a millionaire. The point of the show is to turn to the person sitting next to you and say, ‘What can I do for you?’ ’’