In terms of form, it would be hard to imagine a more straightforward one-person show than “Biro.” Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, a Ugandan-American actor living in L.A., stands onstage in an orange jumpsuit and, as the title character, tells a linear tale of how he wound up incarcerated in Texas. “Biro” puts forth a wholly absorbing story of a smart, gregarious man caught up in the historical and political winds of his time: revolution, AIDS, illegal immigration. Mwine’s superbly understated perf proves that the simplest elements of the theater are quite enough to capture an epic narrative and put forth a passionate, and political, plea for help.
This is an impressive piece of writing, all the more so as it’s Mwine’s first play. And it is a play in the sense that, while written for Mwine to perform, there’s no reason others couldn’t. It possesses a sturdy beginning, middle and end and, above all, it’s thoroughly convincing. There’s a strong element of reportage here: Mwine has based Biro on someone he knows, although for fairly obvious reasons he has begged off identifying the individual. While he may have stuck completely to facts or embellished certain details, it doesn’t matter a bit. There’s not a false note to be found.
Biro was the youngest of a large family in Uganda. His brothers were leaders of the armed resistance to Idi Amin and then later to the even more horrific tyranny of Milton Obote. As a teenager, Biro joined the guerrilla army too, and Mwine’s descriptions of the training, the camaraderie and the oh-so-average tales of sexual adventure are among the most entertaining of the evening. When Biro goes to Cuba for further training, he and many others in his group discover they have been infected with HIV.
Mwine employs a few technical accessories: a few sound effects to assist him in distinguishing the voices of other characters who interact with Biro, some projected photographs of people and landscapes. (Mwine is a very talented photographer, too.) They assist in amplifying the realism of the tale, but far more impressive is Mwine’s ability to take a situation and capture, in very simple terms, Biro’s emotional state. His “teetering between comprehension and disbelief” for days after hearing the diagnosis and his confusion when his best friend, who shared many of the same sexual partners, does not turn out to have been infected are viscerally felt.
Biro’s sister suggests that he join her in America, where he can get access to the most up-to-date medications for AIDS. Biro sneaks in through Canada and soon is enrolled in a research project for a new drug that reduces his HIV significantly. This country, to him, represents a lifeline. But when he recognizes the strain he is putting on his sister’s marriage, he goes off on his own, attempting to find work and to battle loneliness.
“Biro” provides a glimpse into the lives of illegal immigrants as they try to find work, fraught with fear and genuinely vulnerable to others’ whims. It’s a harrowing depiction.
It’s in these small segments that Mwine shows off how vocally versatile he really is, capturing a Dallas drawl with a precision equal to the African voices. He’s an exceptional, disciplined actor and a commanding presence — tall, strong, with shaven head and a goatee. But what’s most remarkable about this piece is how Mwine keeps the focus on the character and, more importantly, the bigger issues involved.