In 2005, Griffin Matthews made the nearly 7,000-mile journey from the skyscrapers of New York City to the hills of Uganda to become one of the many American volunteers looking to “find themselves” and “change the world” by building schools in Africa. Now, Matthews stars in a musical about his journey and in doing so, brings the lives of those in Uganda to a New York City stage. Sound a little cliché? Perhaps it is, but Invisible Thread is a feel-good story brought to life by a clever script, catchy score, uplifting message and talented cast.
Co-written by Griffin Matthews and real-life partner/composer Matt Gould, Invisible Thread began as a piece titled Witness Uganda which won the Richard Rodgers Award for Musical Theater in 2014. Griffin was a struggling actor booted from his church’s choir for being gay when he made the decision to leave his boyfriend Ryan (Corey Mach) behind to sign on as a volunteer. Instead of simply extolling this decision, Invisible Thread calls into question the reason that people perform altruistic deeds in the first place. Is it to help others or to help ourselves feel good? And does the motivation really matter if there is good coming from it?
Through self-deprecating humor and witty lines, both Ryan and Griffin acknowledge their somewhat stereotypical problems. “Imagine, a gay in the tenor section!” Upon arriving in Uganda at the compound where he will be building a school, Griffin meets a woman who is ironically named Joy (Adeola Role). She has built up a wall to protect herself from the constant stream of volunteers who she has learned she will never see again despite their promises. Griffin also meets Jacob (Michael Luwoye), Joy’s brother who works at the compound. They quickly form a bond and Jacob reveals what is really going on with all the schools the volunteers are building. Pastor Jim, who we never meet, immediately sells them for a profit once the volunteers leave.
Looking for answers, Griffin follows Jacob to the market, where he encounters and befriends four teenage orphans—Ronny (Tyrone Davis, Jr.), Grace (Kristolyn Lloyd), Eden (Nicolette Robinson) and Ibrahim (Jamar Williams). Discouraged by the news that his volunteer efforts with the school will result in no real change, Griffin decides that he will instead teach these four teens and Jacob in an abandoned library. As things progress, Griffin realizes that he may be in over his head. His relationships with the students and his determination to make a difference strengthen despite the obstacles.
Throughout the musical, contemporary songs mix with ones of a more Sub-Saharan styling but all are catchy and moving. The choreography by Sergio Trujillo and Darrell Grand Moultrie complements the music wonderfully and adds an energy and power to the performance that is further enhanced by stunning, soulful vocals from the ensemble. A dirt stage is slightly mismatched with the two projection screens, calling attention to the differences between New York City and Uganda.
Diane Paulus directs a talented cast with Role delivering a standout performance as Joy. Mach does what he can with the role of Ryan, though the character seems somewhat less developed than it could be and appears to be an evolving piece in the script based on previous iterations of the production. The climax in the second act seems somewhat muddled, though everything comes together in the end, perhaps too perfectly to properly portray the complicated topics addressed. Invisible Thread is a production which is clearly a result of passion and purpose but it manages to avoid becoming preachy or self-promotional.
Invisible Thread is playing at Second Stage Theater (305 West 43rd St. between 8th and 9th Aves.) through December 27. Tickets range from $69-$125 and can be purchased by calling 212-246-4422 or visiting www.2st.com.