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Witness Uganda Review: A New Musical Probes the World of International Development

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The arts can give us radical insight into our world. Now, a new play is shedding light on the complexities of international aid work.

"Witness Uganda" by Matt Gould and Griffin Matthews is the world's first musical documentary, based on the true life story of Griffin Matthews and his work with orphaned youth in Uganda. The play was directed by Diane Paulus and performed in workshop style at the Miller Theater at Columbia University.

Griffin Matthews, the lead actor, is a well-meaning young man and the founder of a "Not-for-Profit Organization" who is desperately trying to provide education to the orphaned youth living in squalor right outside of Kampala. Subplots are that Griffin is gay in a homophobic world and that the kids are good Christians who love Jesus. When the Global Financial Crisis ensues, the money finally runs out, and the project is not sustainable.

As in all theatrical workshops, there are no sets and stage constructions, and the actors wear no costumes. There are no distractions and the drama and meaning are pure and striking. The story is told with sparse, but poetic dialogue, and live music directed by Matt Gould in "Luganda," the Ugandan language.

"Resurrection People," a rousing performance in the second act, punctuates the power of the story. The live band conducted by Matt Gould is not just music, it is the drama. And it drives the painful story. Matt sings and plays piano, and his voice is tortured and commanding. His conducting hands are distracting and yet they help narrate the play. His hands, moving in rhythm, helped me feel the angst of the desire, hard work -- and finally the failure -- of Griffin to help sustain the orphans in school. A conversation between Griffin and a friend back in New York City about the lack of funds to support the kids is tragic and exhausting, but so very real for those of us who work in this arena.

The play succeeds in demonstrating the power of love and hope in a setting of extreme poverty, and shows the passion that is needed to help those without resources. I felt like I had attended the best taught class for such a topic, even though I am a veteran aid worker. The creativity and strength of Luganda in song made me surge with conviction to continue my work with a new spirit of commitment. I highly recommend this play for anyone who wants to make a difference in the world. See the TEDx online for this workshop and you will know just what I mean.