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Invisible Thread

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Griffin Matthews and Michael Luwoye
Photo by Joan Marcus

Great theatre moves and changes you by its ability to unlock thoughts and emotions buried well beyond the reach of everyday life. Activist theatre, on the other hand, has the goal of inspiring you (usually through outrage) to effect change yourself. Somewhere in the mushier middle are shows like Invisible Thread, which just opened at Second Stage.

This musical by Griffin Matthews and Matt Gould is unquestionably well meaning. It's based on Matthews's own experiences with UgandaProject, the nonprofit he founded in 2005 to provide education Ugandan children who are denied it because of (to quote the website) "the widespread AIDS epidemic, poverty, and 25 year long war," and depicts how a young man in New York comes to love a handful of Ugandan orphans and escort them to better lives despite living in humble circumstances himself. (The man, named Griffin, is played by Matthews himself.)

When the message is the medium, however, something tends to get lost. Invisible Thread is not poorly written, performed, choreographed (by Sergio Trujillo and Darrell Grand Moultrie), or directed (by Diane Paulus). But its hackneyed, predictable nature and its sacrifice of feelings and dramatic action at the altar of relevance mean that the considerable talent involved is not allowed to make the impact it should.

Members of the cast.
Photo by Joan Marcus

In terms of complexities, there's only one, but it's vague. When the black Griffin is kicked out of his Christian Church's choir for being gay, his white, Jewish boyfriend, Ryan (Corey Mach), a wannabe composer of musicals, convinces him to serve the poor—which Griffin interprets as going to Uganda ("I am scared of the South Bronx," he explains) so he can find his roots, too. ("Your grandmother is from Pittsburgh!", Ryan protests.) While in Africa, Griffin sort of falls in love with a young man named Jacob (Michael Luwoye), who's sort of closeted because of the Christianity that surrounds him. The comparison of their experiences as victims of different types of bigotry is intriguing, and you have every reason to believe it will lead to powerful soul searching and cultural commentary.

It does not. The story is never really about how Jacob copes with his controlling sister, Joy (Adeola Role), the mistress of the compound (owned by the unseen "Pastor Jim") on which Griffin is volunteering. It's more interested in how Griffin becomes acquainted with a group of haggard urchins (Nicolette Robinson, Kristolyn Lloyd, Jamar Williams, and Tyrone Davis, Jr.) who try to steal his money and end up being the students he secretly teaches during his time in Uganda. Like Jacob, they're products of their environment, and not open to Griffin's homosexuality, so he must keep the deeper parts of himself hidden—which becomes especially difficult when Ryan makes a surprise visit (don't ask)—but they're willing and able to be more, and Griffin wants to encourage them.

The original version of Invisible Thread, Witness Uganda, was billed as "the world's first documentary musical" when it was performed as a benefit concert three years ago, and perhaps a moniker of that kind is still accurate. But the best documentaries, whether of the stage or film variety, turn on characters and relationships no less than scripted pieces do. We don't know who Griffin is, aside from an aggrieved 23-year-old, and what either Jacob or Ryan means to him (and why) is difficult to discern. And although you do become briefly invested in Griffin's efforts to help the kids escape after their library is burned down at the end of Act I, the second act is concerned almost entirely with Griffin and Matt try to raise funds to pay their way through school, and is inert to the point of brain death.

If not deep, much of the score is attractive, filtering African sounds through Griffin and Ryan's eyes and ears. (The implication is that the evening is the musical Ryan has been struggling for years to write.) Particularly good are "Muzungu," in which the lighter-skinned Griffin discovers how at odds he is with the native Ugandans; the teaching song "Put It All on the Line"; and "Bela Musana," for Griffin's former choir mates to welcome him back into the religious fold (the last is headlined by an electrifying singer named Melody Betts, who sadly has otherwise little time in the spotlight). But even the manipulative finale "Fragile" (with representatively weak lyrics like "The worst kind of warfare / Is the war where you / Break someone's heart" and "But a heart can stay open / Even though it's been broken") works, and the fluid movement between every song and scene creates a river of enveloping energy that ought to have been injected into the writing elsewhere.

Paulus has done her job well, creating aggressive staging that accentuates what tensions there are; the dances are awash in angular, spiritual enthusiasm; and the sets (Tom Pye), costumes (ESosa), lights (Justin Townsend), and projections (Peter Nigrini) craft a comfortably cluttered memoryscape that's compellingly equal parts American and African. Matthews and Mach, though fine singers, don't elevate their roles above the bland, but the other actors, most notably Role and Luwoye, who ensure we always know that Joy and Jacob are hiding something, depict people of understated strength with such conviction that we ultimately long to know them better.

That's an accomplishment of a sort, but it's not enough—nor are the projections at the end that reveal what happened to the real-life versions of the Ugandans we see onstage. We haven't met the actual people, and the facsimiles are too indistinct to matter to us as much as to the writers, who ostensibly know them personally. The job of a playwright or composer, or for that matter a documentarian, is to bring people like these to life, not merely explain to us that they lived the way Matthews and Gould have. UgandaProject may well have done wonderful things, but it's a challenge to stay awake through Invisible Thread to find out for sure.

Invisible Thread
Through December 27
Second Stage's Tony Kiser Theatre, 305 West 43rd Street
Tickets and current performance schedule:

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