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'Invisible Thread' Is More Than A Musical About Uganda

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'Invisible Thread' Is More Than A Musical About Uganda

Theater

'Invisible Thread' Is More Than A Musical About Uganda

'Invisible Thread' Is More Than A Musical About Uganda

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/458183968/458206505" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Griffin Matthews stars in Invisible Thread, a semi-autobiographical musical he co-wrote with his partner, Matt Gould. Joan Marcus/Courtesy of Polk and Company hide caption

toggle caption Joan Marcus/Courtesy of Polk and Company

Griffin Matthews stars in Invisible Thread, a semi-autobiographical musical he co-wrote with his partner, Matt Gould.

Joan Marcus/Courtesy of Polk and Company

Ten years ago, Griffin Matthews was singing in a church choir when his pastor found out he was gay and kicked him out. Feeling depressed, he booked a ticket to Uganda for mission work. What happened next is the subject of Invisible Thread, a new off-Broadway musical co-written by Matthews and his life partner, Matt Gould.

Matthews, a working New York actor, says he was quickly disillusioned after he arrived in Uganda and found out the man leading his volunteer organization was corrupt.

"And so I had to figure out what I was going to do for the rest of my six weeks in Uganda," he says. "And so I walked down the road, tried to clear my head and I met a group of teenagers who stopped me and said mzungu, which means white person. So I got all the way across the world, as a black man, and to them I was a white person."

The teenagers were all orphans, many because of the country's AIDS epidemic, and none of them had the money to pay for school. "I agreed to teach them in a library in the village," Matthews says, "and so we started meeting for daily classes."

That may sound like the classic story of an American do-gooder in Africa, but the show depicts a much more complicated reality. Not everyone approved of what Matthews was doing; some of the villagers were skeptical of an American meddling in their lives. Still, Matthews continued his relationships with most of the teens, and they last to this day. When he returned home, he started raising money to send them to school. It was songwriter Matt Gould who heard music in his boyfriend's stories.

"I said, 'Hey, why don't we write a musical about your experience in Uganda?' " Gould recalls. "And you [Matthews] said, 'As a way to fundraise.' "

Matthews says, "I thought that was the worst idea I had ever heard. ... Nobody wants to hear a musical about Uganda."

But Gould thought they did, so he wrote five songs, which the couple used for a fundraiser. Those songs turned into a full-length musical directed by Diane Paulus. She asked the couple to make the script more autobiographical.

"The couple ... is at the heart of this complicated piece. You know, an interracial, gay, male couple that is trying to figure out how to live in the world; how to marry, so to speak, their desire to make change ... with all the mistakes that they make, with all the challenges that are thrown their way. And that's what the musical really looks at."

The show's "invisible thread" stretches from the two gay American men to the Ugandan teenagers who live in a country with strong anti-gay laws; in the show and in real life, the teens accept the couple. It's also a thread that's keenly felt by the show's cast, most of whom went to Uganda this summer. Diane Paulus says the cast now gets daily texts from the young people they play in the musical. "They're committed to the issues in the show more than just, you know, 'It's a gig.' "

For Matthews, it's clearly more than a gig. He's showing the audience some of his best and worst sides. "It's been really challenging because I've had to tell my secrets to strangers every night," he says. "But it's also been the greatest joy."

And, he says, when you add up all the money various versions of the show have raised over the years, it's come to about $200,000. And those teenagers they initially sponsored? Most have graduated from college; some have become nurses, one is a surgeon, another works as an accountant — and one has even become an actor.

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