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Catching Up With Witness Uganda’s Matt Gould and Griffin Matthews

Writers and composer-lyricists Matt Gould and Griffin Matthews barrel head on into the difficult and the uncomfortable. They want to find “the hardest thing to say” and wrestle it into a piece of theatre.

“Telling a deeper truth” is the goal, according to Matthews. “If it’s easy to say something, you shouldn’t put it onstage. The most dramatic is the hard stuff.”

Those who saw their documentary musical Witness Uganda—or its renamed Second Stage Off-Broadway production Invisible Thread—or Gould’s work on the Broadway-bound Lempicka know that firsthand.

“You have to write something that keeps you up at night,” Matthews says. What was keeping him and Gould up at night was their relationship. During the time they were dating and writing what became Witness Uganda, gay marriage became legal. “One day we couldn’t get married, the next day we could get married,” Matthews recalls. “It’s like, ‘Wait, we’re supposed to get married now? What does that mean?’ The event sparked a whole conversation about, ‘Who are we? What is this generation?’” The pair knew they should be writing about this because they didn’t know the answers.

The two come from opposite backgrounds: Matthews is an African-American Christian man from Pittsburgh, Gould is a white Jewish-American man from New York City. As they grappled with the gulf between their respective roots, they found common ground during a trip to Germany when they took Matthews’ grandfather, who had liberated Dachau, to visit the hallowed ground for his 80th birthday. Gould had lost ancestors to the Holocaust. Suddenly it hit them: blacks, Jews, gays, all would have been killed on that land 70 years ago. The branches of their family histories are intertwined. And so they began what would become The Family Project, a musical told in vignettes as a song cycle.

Now married, Gould and Matthews served as artists on campus through Stockton University’s inaugural Broadway Arts Lab, visiting and lecturing in courses across departments—from “Jewish Stories and Storytelling” to “Black Lives” to “Small Business Management”—and mounted a workshop presentation of The Family Project with students in the theatre department on campus before transferring it to NYU Tisch. “The people who are most honest are the students,” says Matthews. “If you get a group of students together and they’re paying attention, we know we’ve got something.”

Below, Matthews and Gould unlock their artistic partnership, reveal some mistakes they’ve made, talk about next steps for Witness Uganda—and why they’re back to the original title—and share details on The Family Project and a potential next musical.

In terms of building a romantic and a work relationship simultaneously, did you two decide “We’re going to work together as long as we’re together, but if we break up…”?
Griffin Matthews: It is a good question.
Matt Gould: There was just a certain amount of faith around it. It was like it was a matter of survival—for both of us, to some extent.
GM: We unknowingly stepped into a business together. [In the beginning], we had a lot of conversations about, “Are we writing partners right now or are we boyfriends right now?”

At what point do you each say to yourself “I’m a writer”?
GM: I don’t just call myself a writer. I call myself an actor, a director, a producer. I think all of us are doing all of it. But the start of writing was because I found myself feeling frustrated with the jobs I was being offered.

Matt talked about finding the people that make you better. What is it that Griffin brings out in you and your creativity that you don’t have on your own? And, Griffin, vice versa?
MG: It comes down to truth, simplicity. I think pretty much all writers, I don’t care how brilliant the world hails you as. We need someone to reflect back at us and I just think this idea of creator as genius is kind of bullsh*t. I just don’t know many geniuses. Even the ones who everyone says is a genius. Griffin has a far more commercial sensibility than I have. But by that I don’t mean he’s just write fluff. He says, “OK let’s take this crazy idea of Witness Uganda, this crazy idea about a musical about AIDS workers, but you gotta set it to a sick beat and that melody needs to be a little cuter.” I think he has a far more pop sensibility than I have. If it was up to me, it would just be weird. He helped me reach more people and that was really important to me.
GM: Matt, he walks around with a specific kind of bravery that I don’t always have. And I think part of that maybe comes from his upbringing, and the acceptance of this is something that you should do. I didn’t—not to say that my parents weren’t supportive. They were. But I feel like the world is supportive of Matt. And he has become a champion of me. I don’t mean to make everything race-related but it’s been on my mind a lot.
MG: But everything is race-related.
GM: I have to say, if you’re wondering why there aren’t more black musical creators, it’s not because we don’t exist, it’s because the business is not set up for us to succeed. He got to witness it first-hand certainly because we were in a relationship, where he was able to tell me stories about side conversations that were happening. … I say this so sensitively: I think there are a lot of false ideas about how far we’ve come. I once heard Ava DuVernay talking about her career as a director and she said, “If the door closes behind me, the door never opened.”

How hard it is to hold out and not smooth things over? At the end of the day do you say, “This is the message I’m sticking with and if that means playing smaller spaces, so be it”? Or do you cede a bit so it can reach more people?
MG: There’s always compromise, because it’s about reaching a lot of people. I also think there’s a point at which it starts to become inaccessible. That doesn’t excite me. But I also think it’s about learning how to trust when you do actually know better. Everyone was telling us “Witness Uganda is too inaccessible a title. Nobody is going to want to see Witness Uganda,” and we kept going, “I think that might be the title of our show, though.” And we didn’t trust our judgment. The smoothing became so much so that—
GM: We didn’t recognize our show.
MG: Now we get a chance to do it again in L.A. with Griffin as the director and our vision getting put into motion. It’s just about developing that third eye in such a way that yes, compromise, but no smoothing over.

What is the kernel of the idea of the story for The Family Project?
GM: We were trying to figure out if we were going to stay a couple. Witness Uganda tested every boundary that we have. When the commission happened, we were like, “I think we should write about our relationship because I don’t think we’re the only ones having relationship issues.” There’s a generation of us wondering what happens if I marry outside of my race, religion, culture. How do I speak your language? I always say, if this doesn’t work out, I’d go straight to a black man. I tell him all the time, “Go marry a Jew.” Relationships are hard enough, and now I have to figure out what you’re talking about? Now you have to figure out how to deal with my mother? By writing The Family Project, it actually healed a lot of those areas because a lot of people were like, “Us, too!”

What are the emotional beats or moments that feel central to the story, even though you’re telling it in vignettes rather than a narrative?
MG: It’s about values. When you go, “We both believe in integrity. We both believe in having integrity in our relationships, in our work, in our friendships.” So, where did that come from for you? Where did that come from for me?
GM: There’s a song called “Integrity” in the show.
MG: There’s a song called “Don’t Wait.” Which is about my parents dealing with my grandfather for going to a nursing home and it’s like why did we f*cking wait so long? That was the way you start to break down these language differences. “OK, I’m loud and scream all the time” and “I’m calm and make jokes all the time.”
GM: Where did it come from?
MG: Oh, you come from a legacy of slavery and a legacy of racism. And the coping mechanisms behind that were is A, B, and C, different than Jews who come from a legacy of getting kicked out of wherever we lived.
GM: Side story: We were at rehearsal and we started an impromptu song called “Total Praise.” It’s a gospel song. One person started it and then built until the whole cast sang and the white people in the room were like, “How do you all know this song?” It’s like a ten-part harmony. And we were like just like “You don’t [know this song]!” Black people have root in God. We’ve been on the run for hundreds and hundreds of years; the place we all went to was church. A lot of our work—my work—deals with God. The Family Project, a lot of pieces are about God. My parents are like, “Jesus, Jesus, God, God.” Then I have this Jew and he was like. “I don’t know if there is a God,” where he was taught to question everything. We started unpacking that and thought, “This is a song.”

James McArdle, a Scottish guy played the gay, Jewish Louis in Angels in America, he illuminated something for me about why Jews are neurotic. He was like “Louis lives up there (shoulders in his ears), because Jewish people are so afraid of being kicked out everywhere.” We never know if we have to get up and go. It dawned on me, that’s why we’re always eating at a kiddish [lunch after services] as if it’s our last meal because we psychologically think “We don’t know when the next one is.”
MG: This wound up in the show.
GM: This was the first fight.
MG: He used to get so angry at me because when we sat down to eat, I would be done before he even salted his food.
GM: I went to Thanksgiving. First time, his mom dropped the food at the table and said, “What are you waiting for?” I couldn’t believe it because, at my house, the food gets laid out. We stand in a circle. We’re going to pray.
MG: This is a song in the show called “Dinner,” which is where the two families come together. The Jews are sitting there like, “Let’s eat.”
GM: And we’re like, “Let’s pray.”

In what way is it helpful to mount it with college kids and to mount it for this age group?
MG: Because college kids are so free.
GM: They’re just not cynical yet. They’re all so passionate. The deeper you go into your career, the more demons you pick up. One of my demons on this show was, “Will it ever translate for anyone else?” If I’m not standing there, Matt’s not standing there, will it work?
MG: The theatre that dropped the show said to us “It’s too personal the audiences won’t get it.” But I was with the students, doing singing exercises, talking about Family, and they were just—I say this with love, not shade—they were just puddles. Because to your point, the more personal, the more universal. They were tapping into their own lives, and I think for both of us, we were like, “Oh we can let that demon go.”
GM: It’s not about us.
MG: We say this all the time about Witness Uganda. We go over there thinking we’re teaching but we’re the ones getting taught. They gave us our show back.

What else are you guys working on? What else is happening in Matt and Griffin Land?
MG: West Coast premiere of Witness Uganda. Lempicka is having its journey.
GM: We have a baby. They put a lot of things in perspective. [Our son] Galileo feels like the most important thing happening.
MG: That’s probably another show coming. The foster show.

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