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Review: 'A Missionary Position' unites art, activism at REDCAT

In his graceful assuming of various characters, Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine lobs a searing riposte at Uganda's anti-gay bill in a new solo show.

June 29, 2012|By Charles McNulty, Los Angeles Times Theater Critic
  • Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine in his one-man show, "A Missionary Position."
Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine in his one-man show, "A Missionary Position." (Steven Gunther )

He roams the night in menacing military police garb in search of homosexuals. No, he's not cruising the bars of West Hollywood, the Castro or Chelsea. He's the head of Uganda'sspecial task force for the country's Anti-Homosexuality Bill.

Funny, isn't it, the way the words "probe" and "penetrative" always seem to be on his lips? He insists his nation won't "bend over" for homosexuality and believes that the enforcement of the "penal code" is way too "soft."

Satire plays only a small part in Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine's solo show "A Missionary Position," which is receiving its world premiere at REDCAT in an artfully staged production that runs through this weekend. The monologues and documentary footage that follow our encounter with the comically named Brigadier BigamAnus paint a portrait of the tragic aftermath of the proposed 2009 anti-gay bill on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Ugandans.

Although tabled in parliament after international pressure was applied, the bill opened the floodgates of homophobia in the African nation. Political leaders spoke of homosexuality as a perversion promulgated by the West. American Evangelical Christian zealots gave religious cover to the forces of intolerance and oppression. The media sensationalized the frenzy. Human rights abuses ensued.

Mwine, an actor, filmmaker, photographer and playwright, walks a line in his stage work between art and activism. His solo piece "Biro," which was presented at UCLA Live's International Theatre Festival in 2005, explored the situation of an HIV-positive Ugandan man who comes to the U.S. in search of medical treatment.

Written, directed, performed and shot by Mwine, "A Missionary Position," is aided by Carole Kim's dioramic video design and the directorial and dramaturgical contribution of Emily Hoffman.

Unavoidably perhaps, there's a public service quality to the work, a desire to bring international attention to a problem that hasn't by any means gone away. (A program note informs us that the bill "has since been introduced and, should it come to a vote, will likely pass, according to LGBT activists.")

The words of the characters, which include a transgendered sex worker, a gay priest and an accidental lesbian freedom fighter, are largely based on interviews. These monologues are carefully wrought, though they aren't half as riveting as the onstage costume changes Mwine goes through to transform from one character to the next.

The most startling metamorphosis occurs between the brigadier and Serena, the "trans-woman" whose world opens when she discovers a welcoming if dangerous subculture eager to put a price on her flesh. Mwine peels off hyper-masculine black fatigues to reveal a sexy red dress — a contrast that is as psychologically charged as it is theatrically resonant.

As a performer, Mwine possesses an entrancing graciousness. He offers himself as a conduit to other voices. This devotion to the real lives he is in composite form portraying may impede to an extent the dramatic interest of "A Missionary Position." Reality is the ultimate arbiter of his narrative, not imagination — an inherent challenge for all works of creative nonfiction.

But in addition to calling necessary attention to the crisis in Uganda, "A Missionary Position" dramatizes the way an outsider group can be viciously exploited by demagogues looking to consolidate their own power. It's an old story that never goes away, but fortunately neither does the astonishing courage of everyday citizens, although the tale of slain Ugandan LGBT activist David Kato takes the breath away. Rather than focusing on the hate, Mwine honors the magnificent resistance.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

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