Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine in Biro(Photo © Michal Daniel)
Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine in Biro
(Photo © Michal Daniel)
"I have lost more friends as a result of AIDS than as a result of combat," says the title character of Biro, a solo play written and performed by Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine. A mixture of history, polemics, and biography, the piece is based on a true story and addresses important issues such as AIDS, immigration, and political revolution. However, it is frustratingly underdeveloped; the narrative contains too many gaps and not enough human emotion to be dramatically compelling.

Biro tells the story of an HIV-positive prison inmate from Uganda named Mwerinde ebiro, or "Biro" for short. The name, we are told, means "beware of time." Time is something Biro cannot afford to waste: Arrested for drunken disorderly conduct, he finds himself accused of a crime that he did not commit and is exposed as an illegal immigrant to the United States. He came to America so that he might access medical treatments for AIDS that were unavailable to him in Uganda. If deported, it's likely that he'll no longer be able to afford or obtain the medications that are keeping him alive.

One of the more confusing aspects of the play is that the audience does not know to whom Biro is speaking. According to the press materials, he is explaining his case to his lawyer, but there's no way that you would be able to guess that from what's presented onstage. This would seem easy enough to clarify, but the playwright/performer and director Peter DuBois have failed to do so.

That's only the beginning of the script's dramaturgical problems. Biro gives a capsule history of his country's political situation and the tyrannical regimes of General Idi Amin and President Milton Obote. Following in the footsteps of two of his brothers, Biro joined the National Resistance Army (NRA), which at the time was commanded by General Museveni (now Uganda's president). Those unfamiliar with Ugandan politics are bound to be a little confused during much of this section, as the names go by rather quickly and it's difficult to keep track of what was happening when.

Despite this plethora of exposition, there are many missing details -- particularly those of Biro's personal life. We learn that he has fathered a son but are never told the child's name, even though he is mentioned several times as being important to Biro. Similarly, we never learn the name of the child's mother; she's referred to only as "some woman." There's no information about how she and Biro met or what (if any) feelings the two of them shared. The piece is more successful when Biro tells specific stories, such as the one about his mother coming to the NRA camp and demanding to be allowed to bring her son home. In moments like this, there is character development as well as some humor; throughout much of the rest of the 90-minute monologue, however, there is neither.

The staging is simple: Mwine moves around on a raised platform devoid of any set pieces. Chad McArver's lighting design isolates different areas of the stage and enhances the shifts in time and mood. Additionally, a succession of photographs is projected on a background screen; some are gorgeous landscapes (presumably of Uganda) while others are portraits of unidentified individuals or scenes of political struggle. Many of these photos were taken by the playwright as part of his research for the show. At times, their connection to the tales that Biro spins are clear, while at other times they function almost as abstract backdrops.

Mwine has a commanding physical presence and a proficiency with the various accents he utilizes to portray his characters. However, his movements are characterized by a rigid jerkiness that seems out of keeping with his story; I kept thinking that he was attempting to do the "robot dance." It's obvious that Mwine has a political agenda to promote but, as a performer, he does not seem emotionally connected to the stories he tells -- and this makes it even more difficult for the audience to care about Biro.