Turning Well-Meaning into Well-Done
Invisible Thread superficially recalls The Book of Mormon, both musicals telling the story of a couple of Americans in Uganda trying to do good works. But the new musical does not mock the efforts of the Americans nor satirize the misery of the Ugandans. Earnest and energetic, tuneful and often joyful, Invisible Thread also tries, like its protagonists, to make a difference. The musical, which has opened in Second Stage’s Off-Broadway theatre, explores themes of prejudice based on sexual orientation and race; and, at its most intriguing, the nature and practice of charity.
It is the charitable aspects of Invisible Thread that make it unlike any other theatrical experience in New York. Matt Gould and Griffin Matthews, two young theatre artists and life partners, wrote the musical based on their actual experiences creating a charity in 2005.
Invisible Thread is directed by Diane Paulus, the artistic director of the A.R.T. in Cambridge, where last year she directed an earlier version of this musical with the title Witness Uganda. Paulus—whose Broadway credits include the revivals of Hair, Pippin, and Porgy and Bess; the current Finding Neverland; and the forthcoming Waitress—knows how to put together an entertainment. With an experienced creative team including choreographer Sergio Trujillo and costume designer ESosa, and a uniformly impressive cast, Invisible Thread conjures up the memory of several polished Broadway musicals. Like The Lion King, it uses catchy African rhythms wedded to a pop sensibility but also adds gospel belting, Broadway balladeer-ing, and a few moments of rapping. Like Fela!, it uses African costumes, color schemes, and even African language (several of the songs are in Luganda) to represent the culturally rich and materially poor reality of African living.
But Invisible Thread stars co-author Griffin Matthews as a character named Griffin, in effect playing a version of himself. (Gould is also on stage, serving as musical director, conductor, and keyboardist.) This aspect of the musical offers traces of a recent play that was at the same theatre: Whorl Inside a Loop was co-written by Broadway actress Sherie Rene Scott, who starred in the play as a Broadway actress working with black inmates at a correctional facility. Scott's work seemed to turn the inmates into supporting players in what should be their story. Invisible Thread doesn't completely avert a similar self-indulgence.
As the musical begins, Griffin—black, gay, Christian—is a recently graduated out-of-work New York actor who sings in a church choir. He has a Jewish boyfriend—in the musical, Matt Gould is renamed Ryan (Corey Mach)—who aspires to write musical theatre, and whose occasional appearance in Griffin’s church has apparently aroused suspicions. Although in the first number in the musical, the choir sings “All Are Welcome,” this turns out to be ironic. When Griffin comes out to his pastor, he is fired from the choir, which makes him despondent. To comfort him and get him to move on, Ryan asks Griffin: “What would Jesus do if he got kicked out of his choir for being gay?”
GRIFFIN: Jesus was not a tenor.
RYAN: What would he do?
GRIFFIN: I dunno, serve the poor.
RYAN: That’s a great idea!
So Griffin takes a trip to Uganda (“I meant in the South Bronx!” Ryan protests) working as a volunteer at a local charity. “It was simple,” Griffin tells us. “Six weeks. Build a school. Come back home. Feel good about my life. I wanted to feel good about my life.”
It doesn’t take long for Griffin to realize that the charity is something of a scam, run by “Pastor Jim” (never seen) for his own enrichment.
Instead of returning home despondent, Griffin gets a second chance—thanks to a group of teenage orphans, who urge him to be their teacher. Since he’s American, they consider him rich, and, despite his skin color, white. They also start wondering about Griffin’s sexuality, especially Eden, who develops a crush on Griffin, and asks him to marry her so that she can move to America. (Nicolette Kloe portrays Eden in a remarkable transformation from her previous roles, such as a superhero in Brooklynite.)
Does what we can call do-gooder drama inspire its audiences to do good themselves, or does it make us feel like we’ve done our part simply by attending? Are theatre artists unusually qualified to make a difference in the world; is that why many become theatre artists?
The connection grows, until Griffin and Ryan have committed to being their sponsors, paying for their education, their housing….all their basic needs. Since the couple are themselves broke, their makeshift efforts at fundraising back in the US are both amusing and illuminating. The people they approach are interested in buildings they can put their names on, not people; they’re interested in helping 5,000, not five. Griffin and Ryan hold a benefit concert—which just breaks even, raising no money. I won’t reveal their last, desperate effort to raise enough funds except to say that it’s successful, structurally tidy, and deeply moving.
There is something of a welcome tonic to all the sentiment in the part of the story involving one of the sponsored boys, Jacob, portrayed persuasively by Michael Luwoye, and his sister, the misnamed Joy, portrayed by Adeola Role, who gives a stand-out performance as somebody who only seems to be an autocratic obstructionist. (I was struck by Role’s bio, which reads in part: “The Nigerian-born actress received her BA in Performance Theory with an emphasis on ‘Postmodern Blackness’ from UC Berkeley, and an MFA in Acting from A.R.T/M.X.A.T at Harvard University.”)
Invisible Thread provoked some questions the creators might not have intended: Does what we can call do-gooder drama inspire its audiences to do good themselves, or does it make us feel like we’ve done our part simply by attending?
Are theatre artists unusually qualified to make a difference in the world; is that why many become theatre artists? Or could the ego and ambition needed to express one’s personal creativity give artists an inflated picture of their effectiveness? Is it impolite to judge a well-meaning socially conscious theatre with the same criteria as any other theatre piece; or is there an implicitly embedded value that the quality of the theatre isn’t precisely relevant?
“And what is quality?” proponents might argue. “As defined by who—the dominant patriarchy?” Well, no, I would answer, as determined by me as a member of the audience.
Luckily, the many strands of Invisible Thread largely work well together—the song and dance, the social consciousness, and the sentiment. What’s most heartwarming about it, though, is that the charity they created, Uganda Project, with an annual budget of $65,000, administered under the umbrella of the non-profit Empowerment Works, still exists ten years later.
Jonathan Mandell’s newcrit piece usually appears the first Thursday of the month. Find his previous pieces here.