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The new musical Invisible Thread leaves room for debate
Looking for a fascinating personality test? Go see the musical Invisible Thread with a group of friends, then ask them to define Jacob's relationship with Griffin. Chances are good that everyone will have a different answer, and you'll have to stand around debating before anyone can go home.
That ambiguity is essential to the show, which is now at Second Stage after premiering last year at Boston's American Repertory Theater under the title Witness Uganda. Inspired by the actual experiences of writer-composers Matt Gould and Griffin Matthews, Invisible Thread follows Ryan and Griffin, unfulfilled theatre artists who decide to find themselves by going to build schools in Uganda.
They discover, however, that charity has complications. When they meet actual Africans, they not only confront their own preconceptions, but also learn the schools they're building aren't accessible to the poor children they see all around them. And so Ryan and Griffin launch their own charity to help a small group of teenagers get educated. Along the way, they develop relationships with the kids that leave everyone transformed.
Directed by Diane Paulus and set to an African-inflected pop score, this story can feel incredibly uplifting, particularly when we see photos of the actual children who have been helped by Gould and Matthews' Uganda Project. But the show never pretends that it's all good work and good feelings. For every life changed, there's a thorny question that demands to be considered.
For instance, the character of Griffin, who is black, learns that the Africans consider him "white." Their perception of his privilege forces him to reevaluate his own sense of identity. Later, Ryan and Griffin, who are also boyfriends, must decide how to behave in a country that punishes homosexuality with death.
And then there's Jacob, an amalgamation of several people that Gould and Matthews have known. He first meets Griffin at a compound for volunteers, and soon enough, he's following him everywhere. There's no question he's drawn to this American, but why?
Even Michael Luwoye, who is playing Jacob at Second Stage after originating the role at ART, isn't entirely sure. "It's different for me depending on the show, and I try not to solidify it for myself," he says. "I've had that question from audience members. What is the nature of their relationship? Is it what Griffin can bring? Is he in love with Griffin? It's nice to explore that with each performance."
This certainly gives Luwoye more nuances to play. "It's not just as simple as, 'I love you; I'm attracted to you' or 'You're just a moneybags who can ship me out of here,'" he says. "Jacob calls him a blood brother, so he does get that familial aspect from Griffin, but there also is that opportunity to say, 'You can get me to New York.' I feel like I have to make all of those elements believable."
Plus, a casting quirk means the actor can't get too comfortable with any single interpretation of his role. That's because Griffin is played at some performances by Griffin Matthews himself and at other performances by the actor Jeremy Pope. "If I were to interact with them in the same way, just because they are both under the title 'Griffin,' then I don't think I could do my job correctly," Luwoye says. "Jeremy does not do the same things that Griffin Matthews does, and all their differences affect [how I play] Jacob." He notes that the early scenes where Jacob and Griffin meet are particularly fluid, with different levels of attraction getting played almost every time.
But as rich as it is from an acting perspective, this complexity also reflects the real-life connections between Matthews and Gould and their Ugandan community. The cast traveled to Africa together, and as Luwoye recalls, "When we were in Uganda to see how Matt and Griff actually navigate their relationship with the students, it is indeed complicated. We were seeing how it's not clear cut. We were seeing how they navigate certain situations and deflect certain questions. It is very foggy at times, and it's always good for us to remember that."
---TDF MEMBERS: At press time, discounted tickets were available for Invisible Thread. Click here to see all our available shows.
Follow Mark Blankenship at @IAmBlankenship. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Photos by Joan Marcus. Top photo: Griffin Matthews (left) and Michael Luwoye.