Opening December 2nd at the 2nd Stage Theatre, Invisible Thread is a production based on the experiences of co-author and lead actor Griffin Matthews and his real-life partner and music director, Matt Gould. A production CBS describes as “An awesomely powerful musical that will thrill you to the bones”, unfortunately fails to live up to that praise. Matthews tells his story of being a gay black Christian man who leaves his church and his white Jewish boyfriend in Queens to find himself in Uganda by volunteering to build a school. What Invisible Thread struggles to do is strike a balance between personal and collective story, and it ultimately forgets that it is a two hour production in which only so much can be explored.
Upon landing in Uganda, Griffin immediately begins building a school for a compound run by Pastor Jim, an undeveloped and off-stage presence. Griffin breaks the rules and befriends a group of four high school aged orphans. Depending on the show you attend, theses students are played by Tyrone Davis, Jr, Nicolette Robinson, Adeola Role, and Jamar Williams. Griffin takes on the responsibility of teaching these orphans, including a boy named Jacob, portrayed by Michael Luwoye. His boyfriend, Ryan, played by Conor Ryan, joins him in Uganda, and they are able to send the five students to school for a year. The second act follows Griffin and Ryan as they struggle to raise money to keep the students in school the following year.
Matthews attempts to address his experiences as well as larger social and cultural issues in too short a time frame. As opposed to reflecting on his privilege as a westerner traveling to “Africa”, Griffin addresses privilege through his boyfriend Ryan. While Ryan may have been a key part of his personal experience, he was a non-essential and quite frankly obnoxious role in the production. The relationship between Griffin and Jacob is blurred. While Griffin claims to love him, Jacob is completely forgotten at the end of the production. Griffin’s story is an intriguing premise, but the writing needs an editor who has distance from his experience to tighten up the story and create focus.
This is not to say that the entire production lacks redeeming qualities. Quite the opposite in fact, thanks to a fantastic cast. This is impressive considering the ensemble and school children are written as two dimensional characters; existing to drive Griffin’s story forward. Melody Bett’s voice is woven throughout the story, and when she sings in the church; it feels “real”. Jamar William portrays beautifully and quite believably a loveable boy named Ibrahim. The rest of the ensemble and cast is beautiful, talented, and have voices that are absolutely a delight to listen to.
There is not much to say about Director Diane Paulus’ decisions because they are not fully clear. The inability to take a step back from the writing, makes it seem plausible that there was a lack of distance in the directorial decisions. That being said, the staging and use of set was nearly flawless. While the ensemble was relatively small, a combination of the actors’ energy and the choreography, by Darrell Grand Moultrie and Sergio Trujillo, creates a powerful energy on stage that extends to the audience.
The evening begins with Griffin making it clear that audience is going to witness “his” story. Invisible Thread tells Griffin’s story in ways that highlight it is a production and does not place focus on taking the audience out of its seats. From the band being visible at the top of the stage to Matthews’ ending monologue explaining how he continues to help orphans and returns to Uganda every year, the audience knows it is viewing a performance at the Tony Kiesler Theatre. Although based on real life, the writing and directorial decisions of this production create an experience very much rooted on the stage.
This production has the potential to be fantastic if the writers take a step back and focus on two or three themes or storylines as opposed to trying to tell the entire story and be a crowd pleaser. It touches upon serious issues of homosexuality in Uganda and the church, the construction of race and how it is played out in different settings, rape, family, education, religion, western privilege, white privilege, and the list goes on and on. Unfortunately, this means that very serious issues are mentioned in two or three lines and then very quickly dropped so that the same can be done to other issue. The story tries to be provocative, but fails to do so by the lack of self-reflection. The production attempts to juggle the first person-perspective of Griffin and collective perspective, but the priority is given to Griffin’s perspective. While there is nothing inherently wrong with the first person perspective, the lack of self-examination and awareness within that first person perspective weakens the production. This is not to say this production is not worth seeing, but viewers should be aware that they are in for a “feel good” experience and should not expect to leave feeling as though they have seen a life-changing production.