WITNESS UGANDA TELLS THE story of a starry-eyed westerner plunked down in a faraway African country, yearning to make a difference in the lives of native people. But, in contrast to the Uganda-set Broadway blockbuster The Book of Mormon, you won’t find dancing missionaries or a one-eyed, genocidal warlord in this new musical being mounted by the American Repertory Theater Feb. 4–March 16.
As in Mormon, it doesn’t take long for the young man at the center of Witness Uganda to have his illusions shattered. The musical, penned by Matt Gould and Griffin Matthews and helmed by ART artistic director Diane Paulus, earnestly explores the challenges confronted by American aid workers and grapples with the question of whether changing the world is possible. The show was inspired by Matthews’s own experience in Uganda when he was 23 and his connection to a group of orphaned teenagers who changed his life. It led him to start a nonprofit, the Uganda Project, to help fund their education, and the musical started as a way to raise money for the organization.
Writing the show, Gould and Matthews realized that they had to do something counter-intuitive for most nonprofits—they had to be truthful about the worst things that happened to the organization. “If we’re going to tell a story about the complexity of trying to help people, then we have to be willing to look bad—to talk about our mistakes and the things we learned,” says Gould. In the show, one of the Uganda Project students finds himself in dangerous waters while Matthews and his fellow American aid workers are halfway around the world. “There comes a point when cultural misunderstandings lead to a life-and-death crisis,” Gould says.
It is difficult, the creators explain, to help somebody you don’t understand. “You never know if the aid you’re giving is actually effective, or if you’re assuming something about a person or culture that could ultimately damage them,” Matthews says. “You absolutely can make a difference in the world, but in order to do that, you must first make a change in yourself so that you’re willing to be changed by the people you’re collaborating with.”