Review by Tulis McCall
15 December 2015
Sweet, sincere and sophomoric – that about sums it up for Invisible Thread now at Second Stage Theatre. The first clue is the phrase “Inspired by true events” scrawled across the upstage wall of the set. Why do authors insist on telling us this? Beats me, because it is usually the first step in a story that insists on being real instead of theatrical. When you are preparing the story for the theatre, however, this approach is more or less backwards.
Griffin (Griffin Matthews) plays himself in this tale. In 2005 he was rejected by his pastor, to whom he came out at the urging of his white, Jewish boyfriend Ryan (Corey Mach). The rejection sends him out of the country to Uganda where he hopes to rediscover his roots and contribute to the education of a few teenagers. Grace (Kristolyn Lloyd), Ronny (Tyrone Davis Jr.), Eden (Nicolette Robinson) and Ibrahim (Jamar Williams) and the ever recalcitrant Jacob (Michael Luwoye) make up his small tribe. To them his energy is fascinating. They think of him as a white visitor and treat him more like a pet than a man of import. When Griffin refers himself as African American Jacobs asks – does this make me African African?
Griffin struggles to find his purpose among these people who have third world problems. The ring leader is another demanding minister, Reverend Jim, who remains invisible. As Griffin and the kids get closer he teaches them in an old abandoned library. Eventually Ryan comes to Uganda to help as well. The kids figure out the relationship and this gives them all pause because homosexuality in Uganda is (and still is) illegal. Pastor Jim decides to burn the library down and Griffin fleas with Ryan and the kids. They are installed in a school eventually and sponsored by Griffin and Ryan who return to the States. Soon the money runs out and the two guys decide to put on a musical to raise money for the school. A musical – who would have thunk? Eventually they return to the church that spurned Griffin and get enough money to return to Uganda to check on their kids.
They have done that every year since 2005, and in the end we see the kids and discover their career choices. This is indeed a success story.
The drama, however, has leeched out of the tale. In some ways it was never there to begin with. For some reason the authors chose not to have us see the scene that started the ball rolling. Griffin’s minister told Griffin to step down from his position in the choir and leave the church. No gays allowed. Even as I write this I get a little nauseous just thinking about it. Even so, that is the scene I wanted to see. I wanted to see the pastoral cruelty that catapulted Griffin out of the country. It is the event that drives everything else in this musical. To leave it out is to empty the gas tank before the car has left the driveway. I’m not certain how everyone overlooked the fact that the still beating heart was left on the operating table while the body was moved, but they did. More’s the pity.
The ensuing story of a guy trying to do good because he was looking for his place in the world and in the Universe is interesting but not engaging. The music is all uplifting, and there is some glorious talent on the stage and in the orchestra, but the songs begin to sound the same after a while – and does everyone in Uganda break into song at the drop of a laundered shirt? So what was intended as an epic tale of a boy turning into a man ends up being a series of bland incidents that, especially in the light of the refugee crisis going on in Europe, feels almost insignificant.
"'Invisible Thread' is moistened with sentiment and a little scattered when it comes to story."
Charles Isherwood for New York Times
"Diane Paulus’s slick and muscular production helps cover up some of the less plausible or airbrushed aspects of the story, which is fictionalized to the edge of slight melodrama. Still, you’d have to be a monster (or a Republican presidential nominee) not to shed a humanitarian tear upon learning how the real teens ended up. Ultimately, even if the writer-heroes of 'Invisible Thread' seem to pat themselves on the back, it doesn’t prevent them from extending a vital helping hand."
David Cote for Time Out New York
"Despite the rosy prism coloring the social issues, this musical has a good heart, and there's no harm in raising awareness to help educate underprivileged kids in Africa."
Jennifer Farrar for Associated Press
"Despite the heavy drumming, the show isn’t really about Uganda or African orphans or African anything. It’s about Griffin Matthews."
Marilyn Stasio for Variety
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