Tell us about transformation.
Recently, I saw my high school sweetheart’s show Off-Broadway.
This was a musical called Invisible Thread (formerly, Witness Uganda), by Matt Gould and Griffin Matthews, and it was previously in development at the American Repertory Theatre in Boston, and in October, came to New York and opened off-Broadway at Second Stage Theatre. (The show closed in late December.)
Invisible Thread is the story of a young man (Griffin) who comes out as gay to his church and is rejected. He then embarks on a sort-of personal discovery/aid-work mission to Uganda circa 2005, and finds himself and much more (this is a gross oversimplification of the plot). The show is largely autobiographical, based mostly on the experience of Matt’s real-life partner, Griffin, but it also draws on the experience of Matt himself, who was a Peace Corps volunteer in the early 2000s in Mauritania.
I had spent a few years following the show’s development – attending staged readings, and even hauling a few friends to Boston one frigid night last March to see a performance at ART’s theatre there. The show had morphed and changed and been renamed, and ultimately had made it off-Broadway, where some major publications had sent their largely white critics to review a show where 95% of the cast was Black, and levied openly-lukewarm, and maybe-covertly-racist reviews by way of adverbs and quotation marks.
I think some of the critics’ attempts to dismiss Matt and Griffin’s work as loud and chaotic, or as a “Western Saviour”-type narrative is a facile and juvenile way for critics to hide their discomfort with the show and its themes. But maybe I am a white woman stating the obvious in saying that. With this production, Matt and Griffin are showing the Africa they know; showing us their friends as humans, lovers, jerks – ordinary people who thrive and strive and need and want and take. It is not a show about doe-eyed starving children or gun-toting child soldiers and the Westerners who come to save them (which is maybe part of the source of the critics’ discomfort).
This phenomenon – attacking people who don’t fit the accepted narrative – is something that came to mind when I recently read a review of Alice Dreger’s book Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science. In her review of the book, Jesse Singal writes that Dreger is highlighting and meticulously researching what happens when science and dogma collide – i.e., when someone makes a claim that does not fit The Accepted World View.
I wonder, then, if Invisible Thread was critiqued not simply because Matt and Griffin were writing from the perspective of Black/Jewish Gay Outsiders, but also because they were writing from a perspective outside the New Accepted Liberal Worldview: i.e., that anyone who does aid work in the developing world and talks about it has a white/western saviour complex, and all African peoples are disenfranchised, and how dare anyone portray them as being able to have the same wants and desires and feelings as anyone in the Western world.
My own view is that the Liberal World View undermines the dignity and sovereignty of those who receive aid in developing countries and those work on the ground to provide it. Are there Westerners who seek to tie any aid rendered to forced western values and religion? Sure. Are there organisations that engage in what is essentially poverty porn? Yep. But volunteering in the developing world is not necessarily wrong, and to suggest that folks from two different cultures and economic realities cannot form meaningful, equal relationships is patently ridiculous.
That’s a key point that the critics seem to have missed. Or wanted to miss, at the chance to critique a mostly Black cast, and call their stories chaotic/static/loud/insert code word here, and forget that the show is supposed to be about Griffin’s transformation.
Like Matt and Griffin, I have done volunteer work in the developing world, and Invisible Thread’s purported loudness and messiness, brought me right back to that beautiful place. Other similarly-situated friends who had seen it commented on the show’s authenticity – Matt and Griffin were not offering an idealised or comedy version of what that kind of work looked like; it was a unique and uncomfortable experience to relive it.
Maybe, in the era of Rogers & Hammerstein, we went to see a musical to affirm our whiteness or Americanness and our experience of being The Same. But America isn’t like that anymore. America is Black and white and gay and brown. (In fact, most critics seemed to completely ignore that the main love story in the show is between two men, and the show featured a gay love scene. This was either so ordinary or so horrifying that it escaped mention). And I enjoy a theatrical experience that challenges me; pokes at my own conceptions of What is Right, and What is Good, and How Things Should Be.
For instance, I was the last woman Matt had a serious relationship with. And the love story between the main characters includes a gay sex scene, which is largely understood to represent a man I once loved making love to another man. If I were a different kind of person, I might have recoiled under the weight of my own discomfort. But this is a story about challenging perceptions and finding oneself; it is a statement about repressive regimes and fear and longing.
In other words, this is Art. And when you find someone who can take you on a journey to the scariest places within yourself as you watch the drama unfold on the stage, that is Talent.
We are ready for something bigger and better in the theatre, my friends. Maybe this passion project won’t be the one to break these two through. But Invisible Thread was transformative, and I am ready to watch and be spellbound by whatever comes next.