'Invisible Thread' Is More Than A Musical About Uganda

Dec 2, 2015
Originally published on December 2, 2015 9:42 pm

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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Transcript

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Ten years ago, Griffin Matthews was singing in a church choir when his pastor found out he was gay and kicked him out. After that, feeling depressed, Matthews booked a ticket to Uganda for mission work. What happened to him next is the subject of a new off-Broadway musical, "Invisible Thread." Here's Jeff Lunden with more.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: At the start of "Invisible Thread," a young actor walks out on a stage that's covered in red dirt and addresses the audience directly.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "INVISIBLE THREAD")

GRIFFIN MATTHEWS: (As Self) My name is Griffin, and this is my story.

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing) Come. Come to this place.

MATTHEWS: I actually am Griffin, and it is my story.

LUNDEN: Griffin Matthews, along with his writing and life partner, Matt Gould, have co-authored the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "INVISIBLE THREAD")

MATTHEWS: (As Self) My story starts the way that most stories about black people start - in a church. (Singing) I was lost. I was lost in the Valley, alone and afraid of the darkness around me.

LUNDEN: 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.

MATTHEWS: And so I had to figure out what I was going to do for the rest of my six weeks in Uganda. And so I walked down the road to try to clear my head, and I met a group of teenagers who stopped me and said, mozungu, 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "INVISIBLE THREAD")

MATTHEWS: (As Self) Wait. Who's the white person?

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: You. (Singing) Mozungu, oli oteeyah.

MATTHEWS: (As Self) I am black.

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing) How are you, yea?

MATTHEWS: (As Self) Do you guys seriously think that I am white?

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing) Yeah.

LUNDEN: The teenagers were all orphans, many because of the country's AIDS epidemic. None of them had the money to pay for school.

MATTHEWS: I agreed to teach them at a library in the village, and so we started meeting for daily classes.

LUNDEN: 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "INVISIBLE THREAD")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As Character) Breaking into a building that is not yours and kidnapping a boy that is not yours, is the?

MATTHEWS: (As Self) He stopped by on his way home.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As Character) Yes, and he stops by every day.

LUNDEN: But Griffin Matthews did continue his relationship with most of these young people, and it lasts to this day. When he returned home, he started to raise money to send these teenagers to school. It was songwriter Matt Gould who heard music in his boyfriend's stories.

MATT GOULD: And I said, hey, why don't we write a musical about your experience in Uganda and use it as a way to fundraise?

MATTHEWS: And I thought that was the worst idea I'd ever heard.

GOULD: He said it was the worst idea ever.

MATTHEWS: That's a horrible idea. Nobody wants to hear a musical about Uganda.

GOULD: But I thought they did.

MATTHEWS: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "INVISIBLE THREAD")

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing in Swahili).

LUNDEN: Gould wrote five songs which the couple used for a fundraiser. Those five songs turned into a full-length musical directed by Diane Paulus. She asked the writers to make the script more autobiographical.

DIANE PAULUS: The couple which is at the heart of this complicated piece - you know, an interracial gay, male couple that is trying to figure out 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "INVISIBLE THREAD")

MATTHEWS: (As Self, singing) There is an invisible thread that wraps around my heart and wraps around your head.

LUNDEN: So the invisible thread of the show stretches between the two gay American men to the Ugandan teenagers who live in a country with strong anti-gay laws. Although, the young people in the show and in real life 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 now they're getting daily texts from the young people they play in the musical.

PAULUS: They're committed to the issues in the show more than just, you know, it's a gig.

LUNDEN: For Griffin Matthews, it's clearly more than a just a gig. He's exposing some of his best and worst sides to the audience.

MATTHEWS: It's been really challenging because I've had to tell my secrets to strangers every night. But it's also been, like, the greatest joy.

LUNDEN: 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. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "INVISIBLE THREAD")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (Singing) I'm going to learn to fly away. You cannot hurt me in the sky. I want to leave. I want to fly. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.