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UgandaProject spreads word with award-winning musical

Colette Greenstein
Colette Greenstein
UgandaProject spreads word with award-winning musical
(l-r) Matt Gould and Griffin Matthews developed the musical “Witness Uganda” to tell the story of the founding of UgandaProject and inspire others to help. (Photo: Jimmy Ryan)

Author: Jimmy Ryan“Witness Uganda” cast members rehearse for the upcoming run of the musical at Harvard University’s Loeb Drama Center.

In 2005, what began as a simple invitation from a group of friends in Los Angeles to volunteer in Uganda over the summer became a life-changing trip for then 23-year-old Griffin Matthews. His experiences led him to found UgandaProject, an organization that supports teen education in the African country and has also developed the musical “Witness Uganda,” which is coming to Harvard’s Loeb Drama Center next month.

According to Matthews, a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University in his hometown of Pittsburgh with a bachelor’s degree in musical theater, his trip to Uganda almost didn’t happen.

“I was a struggling actor and I didn’t have any money and didn’t think I could go,” he said, but his friend in Los Angeles set out to raise money for the trip and collected enough for him to go along. “They raised more than they expected and a friend said we can buy your ticket, and so I went.”

Call it destiny.

On that fateful first day, “I stepped off the plane and didn’t expect it to be so beautiful,” said Matthews.

Amidst the background of the beautiful rolling green hills, Matthews met a group of orphaned teenagers and listened to their stories and struggles, and found himself going back the next day, and the next, to hear more, until his six weeks were up and it was time to return to the United States.

“I knew going on that trip would change my life and it would be a deeper appreciation,” Matthews said. “When I left Uganda, I didn’t know how I was going to get back. It was emotional. I never had that feeling before.”

Armed with a renewed sense of purpose Matthews set out to help and to bring hope to the teens who so inspired him on that first trip. When he arrived back in New York City, he started a nonprofit called Be The Change Uganda (later renamed UgandaProject), to help raise money to send the teens to school. In the beginning, the organization only supported about six students between 17 and 20. They had completed primary school and some middle school and with the organization’s help were able to attend what is known as a boarding school in Africa — the common next step in education there.

To support the organization, Matthews began raising money by throwing loft parties in New York City. “People would throw in a couple of dollars at a time and we were lucky if we collected $500 in an evening. At the time, the yearly budget was about $20,000. So we had to throw a lot of loft parties,” he said.

Fast forward to the year 2008, The Great Recession hit the U.S. and Matthew’s ability to raise money to keep the kids in school was failing.

Enter Matt Gould, composer, lyricist and music teacher. Matthews and Gould met through mutual friends.

“Because of my two years in the Peace Corps in West Africa, I was anxious to meet others in the theater community who had spent time in Africa. We hit it off immediately — personally and artistically — and we both had similar ideas about aid work and American responsibility abroad,” said Gould.

Then, destiny struck again.

“Witness Uganda,” a documentary musical, was born on a walk on Lenox Avenue between 113th and 114th Street in New York City in 2008, according to Gould. “I suggested writing a musical about the organization as a way to raise funds. Griff thought it was a terrible idea,” he said. “That was how it started.”

Since its creation by Gould and Matthews, “Witness Uganda” has touched many lives across the globe — young and old, white and black, gay and straight. Based on Matthews’ experience, the musical is about a young man named “Griffin” from New York City, who volunteers for a project in Uganda and finds himself on a journey that will forever change his life.

The upcoming production at Harvard uses Luganda (the music of Uganda) in the retelling of the story and is staged by Tony Award-winning director and American Repertory Theater Artistic Director Diane Paulus. It exposes the challenges confronted by American aid workers and the complex realities of trying to change the world.

Prior performances of the show have been very well received and it was awarded the 2012 Richard Rodgers Award for Musical Theater, which was created in 1978 for the development of the musical theater, specifically for works by composers and writers who are not established in the field. The musical has also received the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers’ Dean Kay Award and Harold Adamson Awards.

It has been performed in at events including The Lido Investment Symposium in Beverly Hills, The Rattlestick Theatre New Play Festival in New York City and the Uganda Summit Series in Lake Tahoe. It has also been performed in Uganda.

“I never knew it was going to be a musical. I began building music around the interviews. We’re part of a generation that wants to do good that wants to do something for humanity,” Gould said about “Witness Uganda. “It’s meant to teach, to inspire, to help.”

And that’s what the show has done. It has inspired others to help, to believe, to dream. For example, a young girl named Emily living in Arcadia, Calif., was inspired to help Mary, one of the students in UgandaProject after seeing “Witness Uganda.” Over the course of a summer, Emily raised over $2,000 to send Mary to nursing school. In the summer of 2013, Mary was the first female student to graduate from nursing school in Kampala, Uganda. As Matthews said, “the show was always meant to impact the kids’ lives.”

And Matthews’ thought on what he wants people to take away from the show? He hopes that people walk away feeling inspired and feeling like change is possible.

“I’m just a guy who went to Uganda. You can do it too. There’s no hero. We’re just people trying to figure it out. They can make change and they can be changed,” he said.

The American Repertory Theater at Harvard University presents “Witness Uganda,” created by Matt Gould and Griffin Matthews and directed by ART Artistic Director Diane Paulus. The production will begin performances at the Loeb Drama Center on Feb. 4 and will run through March 16. To purchase tickets, call 617-547-8300 or visit AmericanRepertoryTheater.org.

For more information on volunteering with UgandaProject, visit www.ugandaproject.com