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THEATER REVIEW

Liberty not so easily defined in rich 'Brio'

October 28, 2005|F. Kathleen Foley | Special to The Times

An American-born theater artist doesn't typically hone his work in Africa. Yet how fitting that Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, a Ugandan American whose theater training spans the globe from New York University to the Moscow Art Theater to London's Royal National, chose Uganda for the 2003 premiere of his solo show, "Biro."

The play, a sweeping overview of that country's turbulent history from the 1960s to the present, including the infamously bloody regimes of Idi Amin and Milton Obote, has toured widely in Africa and garnered favorable reviews in New York and London. Now, Mwine has brought it to UCLA's Freud Playhouse as part of the UCLA Live International Theatre Festival.

Mwine, who also took on directorial duties for this production, is a talented photographer with an exhibition also on display at the Freud. His projected photographs, along with those of Ugandan photographer Aloysius Ssalongo, are the chief design element in this strikingly spare production. Leonard Okware and Chris Reay's liquid lighting design and Stefon Taylor's audio, replete with Ugandan folk music and startling gunshots, are also essential to the mood.

Biro is a fictionalized composite drawn from many sources, but the character is primarily based on one individual, a relative of Mwine who remains anonymous. Whatever his derivation, Biro is richly realized by Mwine, an expressive performer whose gestures range from smoothly assured to expressively herky-jerky. Although occasionally difficult to understand, Mwine's lilting African accent certainly sounds like the real thing. It is only when the actor segues into a series of comically flat American dialects that we grasp his true technical range.

Over about 90 minutes, Biro recounts the events of his life, from an early stint in the Ugandan National Resistance Army to a brief stay at a revolutionary training camp in Cuba to his current incarceration in a Texas jail.

It's from that cell that Biro addresses the audience, which assumes the role of his unseen lawyer. Infected with HIV while in the military, Biro has fought his way into the U.S. for medical treatment. However, his arduous odyssey ends ignominiously. Out on the town with a rowdy friend, he is detained by the police in Texas for being drunk and disorderly. When the authorities learn he is an illegal immigrant -- and HIV-positive to boot -- his routine misdemeanor turns into a protracted jail term.

In jail for two years and counting, Biro is trapped between his yearning for freedom and his terror of deportation, a fate he thinks would be a virtual death sentence. Behind bars, he receives the medication keeping him alive. In Africa, he explains, only the very wealthy can afford anti-AIDS drugs.

It's a shattering moment, one of many in this occasionally slow but ultimately moving show. Mwine personalizes the African AIDS epidemic, reopening a wound in our benumbed consciences and making us question anew just why affordable drugs are not made more readily available to all.

Yet "Biro" is no dirge. Amazingly, in defiance of his grim subject matter, Mwine renders Biro as a bit of a bon vivant, a lively storyteller whose life-affirming brio and complete lack of self-pity shame us in our comfortable urban angst.

In another context, Biro could have been the protagonist of a rollicking picaresque. Here, sadly, he is a more tragic figure. Biro is short for Mwerindeebiro, a name that roughly translates as "beware of time." For Biro, the mills of time have ground very fine indeed, but although reduced by the deadly mechanisms of fate, he emerges as a portrait in courage and sheer persistence that will stick in the memory.

*

'Biro'

Where: Freud Playhouse, UCLA, 405 Hilgard Ave., Westwood

When: 8 p.m. today and Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday

Price: $28 to $35

Contact: (310) 825-2101 or www.uclalive.org

Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

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