Four years ago, Matt Gould and Griffin Matthews traveled to Martha’s Vineyard to participate in Vineyard Arts Project’s first annual New Writers New Plays festival. When they arrived on-Island, they knew they were going to make a musical based on experiences Mr. Matthews had while traveling in Uganda as a 23 year old, but they didn’t know much more than that. Still in its early stages of production, the co-creators shared the work with an audience for the first time while on the Island. Years later, the finished musical, Witness Uganda, had its world premiere at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge. Directed by Tony Award winner Diane Paulus, the musical has received critical acclaim and is scheduled to arrive on Broadway this spring.
On August 16, Mr. Gould and Mr. Matthews will travel back to the Island to host a one-night-only concert at Vineyard Arts Project at 6:30 p.m. At the show, the creators and cast of Witness Uganda will present excerpts from the musical and perform some songs.
“It is a little like a homecoming,” said Mr. Gould, of returning to Martha’s Vineyard. “We’re going back to the beginning to share it with the people who saw it first.”
Witness Uganda is a musical of self-discovery. It follows the journey of Mr. Matthews, a young, gay African American man, after he meets a group of Ugandan teenagers whose parents had died from AIDS. Mr. Matthews, hoping to help the children, tries to secure their education and forms a nonprofit called Uganda Project, but learns that sustaining his goal — especially after the economic downturn of 2008 — is far more nuanced than he initially thought.
The musical actually came about as a last-ditch fundraising effort.
“Griffin was struggling and frustrated and wondering how he was going to raise money to keep these kids in school and I suggested that we write a musical about his nonprofit, Uganda Project, to raise money,” said Mr. Gould. “He thought that was the worst idea he’d ever heard, but secretly I started recording his rants about the complexity of trying to help people in this generation.”
When Mr. Gould shared the recordings with Mr. Matthews, he wasn’t upset.
“I thought I was so far away from a solution and from understanding what was going on and once Matt played the recordings to me, I realized I wasn’t that far away,” said Mr. Griffin. “I was so much closer than I thought I was to coming up with an action plan and it was really kind of a moving experience.”
The two then weaved music through the recordings and put together a benefit concert to raise money. After receiving feedback from the concert, they realized their message was one that resonated with more people than they expected.
When the two finally created a musical, Mr. Matthews directed it and an actor played his role. When that actor later left the show for a television gig, Mr. Matthews stepped on stage to fill the role himself. “To dive into the representation of your life every night and to try to find truth, it’s been healing for me,” Mr. Matthews said. “Especially the church and struggling with my sexuality and religion.”
Of the play, Mr. Gould said he hopes it helps people realize that the way to accomplish big change in the world is to start small.
“I always say to people that I hope that they will turn to the person next to them and ask what can I do for you?” he said. “If we really are a generation that hopes to leave a lasting imprint and a lasting impact, it’s going to come because of the everyday exchanges that we have with the people around us.”
Vineyard Arts Project is located at 215 Upper Main street, Edgartown. Witness Uganda begins at 6:30 p.m. For more information, visit vineyardartsproject.org.