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‘Witness Uganda’: Academic theater dances to life

Michael Luwoye, left, and Griffin Matthews perform in American Repertory Theater’s production of “Witness Uganda.”

Gretjen Helene/American Repertory Theater

Michael Luwoye, left, and Griffin Matthews perform in American Repertory Theater’s production of “Witness Uganda.”

Packed with the vibrant, pulsating sounds of traditional African singing and dancing, American Repertory Theater’s “Witness Uganda” is a unique mix of Broadway and Brattle Street — a musical extravaganza with an academic-style interest in Third World politics and prejudices. It’s noteworthy for two reasons: It represents an ever-more-direct injection of theater into global politics; and it brings a rare sense of complexity to its depiction of aid programs in the Third World.

The show is officially fiction, based on the experiences of its young creators, Matt Gould and Griffin Matthews, when they were volunteers in Africa. After each performance, the two host “Act III,” where they take questions from the audience. They have also partnered with the theater’s education and outreach department to bring “Witness Uganda” to over 4,000 area students.

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Anyone who assumes this is a worthy exercise in drawing attention to African deprivations should note that the main character, a version of Matthews himself, is a gay man operating in a country where homosexuality is punishable by life in prison: He’s not an easy captive to First World guilt about the plight of Africa.

“Witness Uganda” is a credit to its creators but also its director, the ART’s Diane Paulus, whose many successes, including “The Greshwins’ Porgy and Bess,” have been praised for their artistic freshness. But this is her finest explication yet of the ART’s mission. “Witness Uganda” is what academic theater is all about.

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