Friday evening, I had the pleasure of seeing Witness Uganda at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills. Not knowing anything about the play going in, I had no idea what I was about to witness with this self-described “documentary musical.” I had no idea what that entailed, and that was the first time I ever saw those two words together. I immediately thought this would either be a snooze fest or the best thing ever. It turned out to be the latter.
The play is inspired by the events surrounding co-founder of Uganda Project, Griffin Matthews, who traveled to Uganda in 2005 to find himself after being outcasted by his church. There, he started a sponsorship for some of the students to financially support them throughout their academic year- much to the chagrin of the deterioration of his friendships and personal finances. Since the start of Uganda Project, the non-profit has raised over hundreds of thousands of dollars to support the education of the youth in Uganda.
Witness Uganda was a story about self-discovery, sexuality, international politics, and redemption. It was also a story about pain and endurance for many of the characters in the play. The actors were phenomenal with vocals that just made you want to cry. The simple stage design with moving set pieces made the black box theater (Lovelace Studio Theater) feel as though we were going halfway across the world with them. The band was simply fantastic and passionate and the musical arrangement and lyrics were raw and very infectious. And Ledisi sang her face off. The tribal chants and music made me shiver because it felt like my ancestors were called into the room with us. It was refreshing to see different body types, hair textures, and skin tones on stage. The colorful prints, the use of light (or lack thereof), and the tribal choreography were a genius touch.
The characters felt very authentic and each had a lot of depth to them. The one that I was most interested in watching was Joy. I felt like even though she was one of the antagonists in the beginning, I love how her character gained empathy with the audience by the end when she told her heartbreaking story/song. The Ugandan students reminded me of the loss of innocence in children who had gone through so much in their short life. The breakdown of best friends Griffin and Ryan was equally relatable and heartbreaking; as well as the curious relationship of Griffin and Jacob.
It was very refreshing to see a majority black cast in a stage play that’s not a classic like “The Color Purple.” We need more majority black productions, which was touched on in the talkback with co-writers Griffin Matthews and Matt Gould, along with one of the producers, Tony and Grammy award winner Cynthia Erivo. They all strive to tell authentic stories on stage and to get more people of color on productions. I wish them nothing but future success, and I hope the cast of this run does the recording for the album!