Invisible Thread: The African Style

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Griffin Matthews has been traveling to Africa for 10 years, and he’s never killed a chicken. With his partner Matt Gould, the actor/writer penned the musical Invisible Thread about their humanitarian trips to Uganda, where they have created education opportunities for children there under their organization, Uganda Project. The show premiered at American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., in 2014 (under the title Witness Uganda) and will run at New York’s Second Stage through December 27.

However, when Matthews took the cast and creative team to Uganda before the show’s New York run, he learned that New Yorkers have great survival instincts. “It was incredible to watch all these people who enjoy their comforts, throw it out the door and go, ‘We’re here, we’re doing it,” Matthews says. For example, “cooking in Uganda is not on a stove. It’s over charcoal fires, and you had to go to the market to buy chickens and they’re alive. So if you want a chicken, you have to kill the chicken.”

And some of the group did; however, none of the four actors joining Matthews today was brave enough to do it either. Tyrone Davis Jr., Kristolyn Lloyd, Nicolette Robinson, and Jamar Williams play four of the students in Matthews’s school in the docu-musical, and during their trip, they got to meet the people who inspired their characters.

Gathered around a table at a Chelsea photo studio, the five chat freely and honestly about their experiences in Africa—from taking water bottle showers to learning to slow down the pace of life—and share how the trip shaped them as performers and individuals. (Also, they talk about the amazing African street style.)

“We’re still living the story, and as we continue to progress, the music progresses, the script progresses,” says Matthews, who plays himself in the show. “Taking everyone to Africa this summer was a progression in all of us. I’ve never been there with all of my African-American friends, and that was a real awakening for me. My family and my career in New York City coming to meet my family and my passion in Uganda was just such a beautiful mix, and I realized that I want to do more of that all over my life.”

What was one of the most profound and memorable experiences you had during your trip to Uganda?
Nicolette Robinson: When we went to visit the high school where Griffin put them in school, we met their headmistress, and all of us, including the students, gathered into the headmistress’s office and sang “Beautiful” for them. That’s our first song together in the show, and it was the first time that any of them had heard the song. And for me, just sitting in their school office singing for their teacher and for them for the first time, as them, was incredibly surreal.

Tyrone Davis Jr.: There was a woman who was our cook while we were there in the house, and she’d wake up at like 5 a.m. and wouldn’t leave until like we were done with dinner. And one night, she sat down finally, exhausted from her day, and I just started chatting with her. Her name is Mary. I was like, “Hey Mary! What’s going on? Tell me about your life.” So she starts telling me about her situation and how she’ll never really get to experience the life that she wants to live because, you know, she lives in Uganda and it’s very difficult. I feel like, as Americans, when we approach conversations like that, we tend to say things like, “Girl, it’s going to be okay.” But that was a situation where you can’t say something like that because you honestly don’t know if things will get better for this human being. So, for me personally, that was a realization at how there is not always a fixable solution. It’s not that easy. And that’s what this show is about.

Jamar Williams: One of the more profound moments for me was when we saw that we were actually not considered black there. The word is “mzungu,” which means “white man.” While we were walking through one of the villages, I encountered three little boys, and one of them was carrying a chicken by the neck. I said, “Is this your pet?” And he said, “No, this is my food.” And so he just followed the group as we were walking up to the hill, and he asked me where I was from, and I said, “I’m from America.” And he kept looking at me like, “What? What are you talking about?” And I was like, “Yes.” And he was like, “But you’re not the same color as them,” pointing at Matt Gould, the composer. And I said, “But we’re from the same place.” He goes, “No, what part of Africa are you from?” And then I said, “I’m not. I’m American.” And then he said, “Oh, so you’re mzungu.” So there was like a distinction between like you’re either from a different part of Africa or you’re white. And that just kind of shook me because going to Africa as a black American, you feel like, “Oh, I’m there.”…There is a separation of identity that is really hard to cross, but the one thing that you do have in common is your heart and your emotions and that was more prevalent than being like, “Oh we’re black so we know how it is.”

That’s a powerful story. What about you, Kristolyn?
Kristolyn Lloyd: It’s really hard to not just say this one, but watching two of my best friends be dads for these students. One of them got married, and Griffin was doing the dad speech at the wedding.

You went to the wedding?
Kristolyn: Oh yeah. We went to the wedding. We sang at the wedding. Watching the students talk to him and call him “Tata” or Uncle and sit down with [Griffin and Matt] and be like asking for money and talking about their school plans….It was really amazing watching my friends’ lives in Uganda that I always hear about, but seeing them one on one with the students just did something to me. I can’t explain it. It made me very emotional.

What was the style like in Uganda?
Kristolyn: All the kids have different styles. Edith, although she’s the oldest, has a very young girl style. She enjoys mini skirts and pink and bows and headbands. And then Joanne and Mary are younger. Mary’s a nurse and she wears pencil skirts. Joanne showed up like fierce, right? Just fierce every day. She had like peplum things happening like skirts and tops….Esther, that’s who my character’s based off of, is a model so she is like always trying to be up on the trends and she really does have the most fashion forward clothes out of all the girls.

Nicolette: A bunch of the girls wanted to buy African long dresses before we left and so we gave Esther money and she went to the marketplace and had them made for us and we each got our own individual skirts.

What about you Griffin? You’ve gone to Uganda many times, have you been inspired by their style?
Griffin: Well, they have a sick street style because all their clothes come from borrowed markets. Certainly, when I’m in Uganda, I get a lot more bold. I wear a lot more beads and accessories and headbands and just things that I wouldn’t really wear here. We’ll do like a trade off because they want my new clothes so I’m like, “Give me that shirt.” So I have a couple of shirts from our boys. I have a pair of jeans from our boys. One of our kids made tire sandals for the whole group.

Kristolyn: I saw someone selling them here and I was like, wait a minute…

Griffin: Some of our kids’ moms make jewelry, and I wear that. They think it’s funny because they make jewelry for women only, but men in the U.S. wear jewelry. The thing that I love about them is that strangely enough in a culture where homosexuality is not talked about, it gives people freedom to dress how they want. So you’ll see men wearing women’s tops because it doesn’t necessarily signify that they’re gay. So you get a very cool expression of people being themselves.

When you think of Uganda, what is the first word that comes to mind?
Tyrone: Warm.
Jamar: Community.
Nicolette: Beauty.
Griffin: Joy.
Kristolyn: Exuberance.