Jill Weinlein, Chief Los Angeles Critic
Winston Churchill in his 1908 book “My African Journey” said Uganda is the Pearl of Africa. After watching Witness Uganda at The Wallis Annenberg Center for Performing Arts, I declare this musical is a sparking diamond onstage.
The energy and music reminds me of the award-winning 90s rock musical RENT. Instead of watching impoverished young and creative artists struggle under the shadows of HIV in New York City, I watched a group of teens and children in Uganda orphaned by AIDS, and how one man’s life changes forever by helping them.
The foundation for this musical started in early 2000 when writer and performer Matt Gould was a Peace Corps volunteer in The Islamic Republic of Mauritania from 2001-2003. A few years later in 2005 musical performer Griffin Matthews travelled to Uganda on an aid trip and discovered that the AIDS epidemic has forced children to fend for themselves.
After that trip, Matthews soon started the UgandaProject aimed to raise money to help educate a small group of students living in Kampala, Uganda. For years, he and Gould visited, gathered stories and provided financial aid.
They first wrote Witness Uganda as an one-night fundraiser weaving five songs with their real stories. After that performance, they paid the rental cost for the venue, and barely broke even. Instead of giving up, they revised the show, and created a full musical.
With the support from their friends they persevered. Soon donations started coming in more frequently as they told their story. An impressive group of fans are helping to produce the show, including Broadway star Leslie Odom Jr. (Hamilton) and his actress wife Nicolette Robinson. Actress, singer, and songwriter Cynthia Erivo and Lauren Bromley. Actress, writer and producer Abigail Spencer, Hasan and Janna Askari, Neil and Kate Malik, Lisa Delima and James and Michelle Toney. They all believe this story must be experienced to unite the global community.
The pulsating music is led by Gould at the piano, with a percussionist and guitarist creating a dazzling blend of rock and African sounds. The all star ensemble includes twelve-time Grammy nominee Ledisi as The Rain Lady, Jamar Williams (Wild Goose Dreams and Witness Uganda Off-Broadway) as Griffin, Amber Iman (Hamilton) as Joy and Emma Hunton (Wicked) as Ryan. We learn about charismatic musical actor Griffin and his best friend Ryan moving out of Pittsburgh to get a 400 sq. ft apartment in New York City. Dreaming of becoming Broadway stars, they soon realize New York has a great way of breaking you down. Griffin escapes society and church condemnation of his sexuality, after noticing a opportunity to fly to Uganda to help build a village school. He soon meets orphaned and hardened Joy (Amber Iman) and her younger brother Jacob (Kameron Richardson). He also encounters the lovable Ibriham (Dexter Darden), smart and funny Ronny (Jordan Barrow), sweet Eden (Sha’leah Nikole Stubblefield), and the very honest Grace (Naarai). Griffin finds himself driven by a mission to help change their lives, however they change his forever.
The talented ensemble includes Keenan D. Washington, Antwone Barnes, Thursday and Jai’len Joset. Not only do they dance exquisitely, they sing beautifully and creatively move set pieces all over the stage.
Choreography by Abdur-Rahim Jackson and directing by Griffin Matthews keeps the cast rhythmically moving their bodies in numerous scenes, including my favorite colorful basket dance in the Marketplace, and when Jacob sings “You have to do, what you have to do to survive.” The “Resurrect people, not buildings” song is a moving number where the entire cast dance, sing and hold signs that read “End Prison Slavery”, “Rainbow is the new Black” and “Stop Shooting Us.”
I enjoyed the melodic “It’s Hard to Live it” and “These Four Walls.” The audience were on their feet in applause before the last note was sung in “Be the Light”.
When Amber Iman (Joy) sings “Don’t weep for our scars” the audience embraces her beautiful voice and presence.
The ending is clever with a spool of wire that unwinds to unite and tie each character together.
There is a line in the musical “If we were all supposed to do what we should do, then we wouldn’t have these massive issues.” With over 2.5 million orphans in Uganda, Gould and Matthews can’t help all of them, however if their story is told in more theaters and goes to Broadway, more of these children will be able to achieve their dreams.
The characters in the play are based on real people, and on opening night, a special guest in the audience was one of the Uganda orphans that Matthews met and has helped through the years. She along with the cast received a long and lively standing ovation.
The show runs on Tuesday, February 5 – Sunday, March 3rd, 2019.
Tickets, $50, are on sale now and, available at TheWallis.org/Witness. The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts is located at 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd, Beverly Hills. To purchase tickets call (310)746-4000 or visit TheWallis.org/Witness