Authenticity has become a critical factor in an age when so much isn’t. Who could have guessed 20 years ago that a huge category of television would emerge called “reality TV” that uses “found” participants but is as orchestrated and manipulated as any sitcom? We know it isn’t real but some part of us wants to believe it is. There’s something uniquely compelling when a story is true.
This has played out in the world of literature as well. A slew of best selling memoirs from major publishers were recently exposed as fraudulent. Oprah Winfrey was so personally affronted when she discovered that a book she had endorsed, A Million Little Pieces by James Frey, was fabricated that she shamed the author in front of her millions of viewers. So many books were exposed as mendacious that a new genre, the “fake memoir,” came into being. Truthfulness—or some variation of Stephen Colbert‘s “truthiness”—is sometimes more crucial in the experience of a work than the quality of the content or the artistry of the storytelling.
That issue of authenticity is a factor in A.R.T’s latest production, the new musical Witness Uganda. In many ways this is a theatrical memoir: Based on the real life experiences of the lead performer, Griffin Matthews, who plays himself, the production follows him from his first trip to Uganda as a naive and idealistic volunteer to his subsequent creation of an NGO to sponsor the education of Ugandan orphans. Partnered with the music of gifted composer Matt Gould (who also lived in Africa—Mauritania—prior to writing this musical), Matthews’ story of volunteerism gone awry, the conflicts in trying to do good and the challenges of running an NGO is transformed into a narrative that takes on meaningfulness in large part because it is personal, because it is based on this man’s actual life story.
Matthews and Gould understand the criticality of that connection. Witness Uganda started off as a musical infomercial to raise funds for their NGO, UgandaProject, and then it evolved. The characters in the play are a variation of the actual students whose education they have funded, and Matthews and Gould have kept their Ugandan friends involved in this creative retelling. The outreach happening during the run of the show with Ugandan communities and others impacted by this story also speaks to a tacit understanding that this is a project much larger than just musical theater.
But musical theater it is, and the Diane Paulus factor has made sure the production is a masterful one. As A.R.T.’s artistic head and the director of Witness Uganda, Paulus has assembled yet another extraordinary team of creatives to produce a high energy/high feed good evening that reflects the professionalism of her Broadway standards. (Many of Paulus’ Cambridge-based productions have migrated to Broadway where they have been met with great success including Pippin, The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, The Glass Menagerie and the most recent, All the Way , starring Bryan Cranston as LBJ.) The music is intoxicatingly great (with a live orchestra led by Gould), the performers are stellar, the choreography terrific, and a set that evokes an Africa of poverty as well as natural beauty.
There are parallels in the visual arts with the “larger than the proscenium” scope of this project. New forms of social practice and performance/conceptual art have expanded the experience well beyond the confines of a gallery or museum to include real services provided to those in need. As a committed pluralist—Arthur Danto calls it “radical pluralism”—I will always advocate for open forms and new variations, in the visual arts as well as other fields. Certainly musical theater has more capacity for gravitas than the lighthearted material at the core of an Oklahoma! or a Showboat. And one innovative way to augment the limitations of a storytelling form that is built around song and dance is to do just what Matthews and Gould have done: Take the experience beyond performance and into the lives of real people. Hats off to those who can do both, and do it well.