As Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine began writing his one-man play, "Biro," five years ago, he thought he was delving into a single African immigrant's struggle to outswim the riptides of modern life -- poverty and HIV/AIDS, war and human migration.
But Biro's story was not singular, as Mwine learned when he debuted the play in a reading before a 2002 gathering of Ugandan emigres in Las Vegas. Mwine, a Los Angeles actor, photographer and now playwright, based his character Biro on a relative he declines to identify, a former Ugandan rebel soldier who slipped illegally into the U.S., hoping to get HIV treatment.
In a post-reading talk with the audience, a Ugandan immigrant shouted out: "I think I know who this man is! Is this Steven?" It wasn't. But that it could have been surprised Mwine.
"I just thought that was remarkable -- there's so many different stories of people who have gone through the same journey," Mwine said.
After performing the play at New York's Public Theater last year, Mwine received a series of e-mails from African men in similar straits. "It's a new wave of immigrants -- medical refugees who can't get treatment in their countries, so they go elsewhere to try to survive."
"Biro" will be presented for the first time in Los Angeles next week as part of the UCLA Live International Theatre Festival. The play, the first Mwine has written, premiered with a monthlong engagement in Kampala, Uganda, beginning in January 2003, then moved on to 16 provinces.
In 2004, Mwine took the play to London and New York City before returning to Africa for the July African Union Summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where he performed before African heads of state -- some of whom he lampoons -- and U.N. chief Kofi Annan.
"It was more surreal than anything else," Mwine said. "For an artist to have a chance to speak to these African heads of state, it was really a remarkable opportunity.... It's the first piece I've ever written, so for it to have gone beyond my family's ears is a thrill."
The play has won solid reviews, and became something of a cause celebre in Uganda and other African nations where Mwine has twinned performances with workshops aimed at helping artists explore issues surrounding the African AIDS epidemic. The Monitor in Kampala, Uganda's capital, embraced "Biro" as a "rebuttal against forgetting our past, however painful it may be." The New York Times called the play "an eloquent, intimate solo piece."
The play's overlapping themes of race, class and HIV/AIDS have also drawn attention from activist groups "looking to use the play as a tool for addressing a host of issues, from immigrants' rights to HIV/AIDS advocacy to struggles for democracy and so on," Mwine said.
It's the directness of Mwine's script and acting that gives the play its power, said Peter DuBois, who directed the Public Theater's presentation of "Biro" last summer.
"He's an incredibly compelling performer and storyteller," DuBois said. "Part of what's exciting about the play is it's an intimate, firsthand account of one man's story ... rather than a big piece that tried to embrace the entire crisis of an entire continent."
A key truth emerges
The play is deceptively simple. Mwine takes the stage as Biro, dressed in an orange jail jumpsuit, who explains to his unseen lawyer -- the audience -- how he came to be in a Texas jail cell.
Photographs, many taken by Mwine, projected on screens form the stage backdrop as Biro talks about his years fighting with Ugandan rebels; his squad's assignment to Cuba for additional training, only to be sent home when it was discovered they all were infected with HIV; his son; and his illegal immigration to the U.S. for medical treatment and a job.
Biro doesn't recognize a key truth that emerges about himself, though: that his entire life has been a heroic act of hope and survival in a world that buffets him with winds of war, disease and poverty. "What's interesting is to see how he navigates and survives pressures that are sort of pushed on him," Mwine said.
Of the more than 30 men from Biro's squad sent to Cuba, Biro is "the only one alive" because "he got access to treatment."
Alive, but in prison. "It's like he made a wish with the devil," Mwine said.
Mwine, 38, was born in the U.S. to Ugandan parents as his father studied at Dartmouth College. His parents separated when Mwine was 4, his father going on to work in international finance and development, including the World Bank in Washington, D.C., his mother teaching psychology at the University of Nairobi in Kenya (both have since moved back to Uganda).
"So I got the chance to bop around from parent to parent in different interesting places," Mwine said.
He studied acting at New York University and the University of Virginia, the Moscow Arts Theater in Russia and London's Royal National Theatre.