fb-pixel

Musical’s writer and star accuses ART’s Diane Paulus of racism

Theater’s artistic director says ‘I could and should have done better’ during their collaboration on ‘Witness Uganda’

American Repertory Theater artistic director Diane Paulus with "Witness Uganda" creators Matt Gould (left) and Griffin Matthews.
American Repertory Theater artistic director Diane Paulus with "Witness Uganda" creators Matt Gould (left) and Griffin Matthews.Gretjen Helene photography

The Black cowriter and star of a musical that premiered at the American Repertory Theater in 2014 has implicated the theater’s artistic director, Diane Paulus, in the racism he says he experienced during the production of the show.

In a video posted on social media, Griffin Matthews referred to some of his collaborators on “Witness Uganda” as “Amy Cooper,” the white woman who called the police on a Black birdwatcher in Central Park.

“See, the thing about Amy Cooper is she is a liberal. She is an artistic director. She is a Tony winner. She is a producer. She teaches at Harvard,” Matthews says in the video, titled “Dear Amy Cooper: Broadway is racist. #BurnItDown.”

Advertisement



Paulus, who won a Tony Award in 2013 for her revival of “Pippin” and is on the faculty at Harvard, directed the production of “Witness Uganda” at the ART. She later directed the show at the off-Broadway Second Stage Theatre, with the new title “Invisible Thread.”

Paulus apologized in a statement Thursday night, acknowledging that the process of developing the musical with Matthews and composer Matt Gould was “filled with creative differences, many rewrites, and heated discussions around a subject matter steeped in the pain of racial violence."

“It was my responsibility to create a space where those issues were handled with the deepest care,” Paulus wrote. “I could and should have done better.”

In his seven-minute video, posted Monday, Matthews says the viral clip of Cooper frantically summoning police to Central Park prompted him to speak up about racism he says he encountered while working on “Witness Uganda.” Reached Thursday by email, Matthews declined to elaborate on his post, saying, “For now, I’ve decided to hold on making any official press statements and let the video stand alone.”

“It was a revelation for America,” Matthews says in the video, referring to the footage of Cooper, “but it was extremely triggering for me because I have been in the room where it happens, and Amy Coopers are alive and well in the American theater.”

Advertisement



“Witness Uganda,” which Matthews wrote with his now-husband, Gould, is an autobiographical story of a frustrated young actor who, expelled from his church choir for being gay, goes to Uganda to help build a village school. The show won the prestigious Richard Rodgers Award for Musical Theater in 2012 and 2014.

Griffin Matthews (center) starred in "Witness Uganda" at the American Repertory Theater in 2014.
Griffin Matthews (center) starred in "Witness Uganda" at the American Repertory Theater in 2014.Gretjen Helene/American Repertor

In his video, posted on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, Matthews details treatment he considered racist, including an unnamed producer of the show “strong-arming” him by saying “'I will not produce your show if you do not change the title, exit your role as lead actor, and exit your role as lead writer.”

He also recounts a director, presumably Paulus, “saying in a casting session that an actress doesn’t look Black enough to be in ‘Witness Uganda.’ ” That, he says, “is what Black people call the ‘paper bag test’ and that is Amy Cooper.”

Matthews relates another testy exchange with “our director” during which she “screamed in my face, ‘I do not work for you,’ when in fact she did. She worked for me."

“The director works for the writer to bring forward the vision and in that moment she was Amy Cooper,” Matthews says.

Without naming Paulus, Matthews chides the acclaimed theater director for her treatment of Black artists.

Advertisement



“She puts on pretty dresses and speaks eloquently about how much she cares about diversity and inclusion . . . She works with Black people. She believes she loves Black people. She buys their work and then, behind closed doors, she steals it. She manipulates it. She has no time or patience to research it. She has no idea how to defend it because she never understood it. She waits for everyone else to tell her if it’s good or if it’s relevant or if it’s award-worthy because she sincerely has no idea what’s what. Her Black experience is strictly about money and profits.

“White people literally need not one Black person to become a Broadway sensation, to become a millionaire, to become a Tony winner,” he says. “I may never make it to Broadway for simply speaking out against the horrific treatment that I received, and all the Amy Coopers will be fine. . . . They do not need Black people to reach the pinnacle of success, and that is why I say, burn it down.”

In her response, Paulus issued no denials and did not try to defend or explain her behavior. She apologized “for the pain I caused Griffin” and pledged “to re-commit myself to engaging in deeper self-reflection, to creating braver spaces for more collaborative art-making, and to listening to feedback to help me be a better artist, director, and citizen.

“We live in a racist world, and no one is immune to it, myself included,” Paulus wrote. “To transform this world, we need first to acknowledge the role we play in it. This letter is part of that process.”

Advertisement



Matthews, who has appeared in such TV shows as “Ballers” and “Dear White People,” has since changed the title of the musical back to “Witness Uganda,” explaining to Playbill in 2017: “Matt and I have spent the last year restoring our show to its original roots.”

The new version of the show was staged in Los Angeles in 2019, with Matthews directing.


Mark Shanahan can be reached at mark.shanahan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MarkAShanahan