A git-prop theater can cut both ways. Speaking through the character of a young man who came of age in Uganda during the dictatorship of General Idi Amin, American-born actor Ntare Mwine (“Six Degrees of Separation”) pursues a dual objective with his first play, which preemed last year at Uganda’s National Theater in Kampala and later played the National in London. While educating auds on the horrific realities of life in an African nation torn by civil war and decimated by AIDS, didactic piece proselytizes too hard for overhauling restrictions on illegal immigration, a simplistic political fix that undermines sympathy for the protagonist.
Although he projects an intelligence that seems too keen for the simple country boy he’s playing, Mwine instantly grabs attention as Mwerindebiro, who is standing front and center in an orange prison uniform.
Since the stage remains completely bare — except for back-wall projections of imperfectly focused but artfully composed photos taken by the playwright in Uganda — a program note would have helped to establish that Biro, as he calls himself, is incarcerated in a Texas prison, talking to his lawyer.
Biro gives a straightforward, harrowing account of himself. His family life shattered by war, he becomes a teenage soldier in a guerrilla army fighting Amin’s regime. During training in Cuba, he contracts AIDS; of the 32 people in his company diagnosed with the disease, he is the only one who survives.
At the urging of a sister who lives in the U.S., he acquires a visa for Canada and is “maneuvered across the border” into the states as an illegal immigrant. Once through “the golden door,” he gets into an AIDS treatment program and uses forged documents to find work at Kmart. But before he can save up the cash for more convincing phony papers, he gets into a drunken barroom brawl and lands in jail, awaiting the heavy hand of immigration authorities.
A leanly muscled man with deep-set eyes, Mwine moves with the rocking gait of someone who wants desperately to run somewhere but can’t find the door. Assuming an accent acquired in hours of taped interviews with the real Biro, thesp allows the monologue to flow out in lilting musical cadences that fall gently on the ear and predispose the listener to think kindly of such a soft-spoken man.
But having established Biro as a decent man fighting desperately for survival (“The main reason I came to the United States was for medicine”), Mwine merely indicates, instead of dramatizing, his experiences in this country. Interactions with bosses and co-workers are fleeting and superficial and, aside from a wonderful cameo when Mwine assumes the persona of a blind uncle in Uganda, there are scant signs of Biro’s huge family clan. And although Biro expresses his fear of possible deportation, not a mention is made of the official status of his legal case.
Lacking both a dramatic and a legal context, Biro’s story of personal suffering remains stubbornly personal, raising awareness about the devastation of civil war and the global catastrophe of AIDS but resisting the playwright’s facile attempt to pin it all on U.S. immigration policies.