Ugandan American actor looks at AIDS from perspective of a continent being decimated
In 2002 in New York City, 1, 712 people died of AIDS; in North America 15,000 died; and in Sub-Saharan Africa 2.4 million people died.
A Ugandan American, Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, is the author and performer of “Biro,” a one-man monologue The Public Theater is presenting in conjunction with its revival of Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart.” Mwine’s story is about his Uncle “Biro” who lives with AIDS.
Mwine is a highly accomplished performer. His movements are fluid and he re-creates his uncle’s accented English flawlessly, even if, at times, the dialect is a strain on the ears.
Mwine, who wrote the script after transcribing hours of interviews with his uncle, appears on a bare stage in an orange U.S. prison uniform. There are beautiful photographs projected behind him from Uganda and Cuba, which he shot specifically for the theater piece. An exhibition of additional prints can be found in The Public’s lobby.
Biro begins by telling us that he traveled to the U.S. for medicine and to take care of his son, after seeing others come back from the U.K. and the U.S. with jeans and sneakers, whereas before their possessions were meager. As an illegal immigrant, he was taken in by strangers paid by the State of Texas to house people living with AIDS (PWAs), but became lonely and got drunk.
“Alcohol is part of what landed me in jail,” Biro tells us. “It has always been a part of my life, for better or for worse. I don’t feel I’m an alcoholic, I mean I feel alcohol is––it’s something you can’t do without, I can do without alcohol but it’s what makes me happy.” After a drunken barroom brawl, he’s arrested for drunk and disorderly conduct. Once in custody, police learn that Extended Stay America, a hotel where he worked, had lodged a complaint that he stole $300, which resulted in a warrant for his arrest. Biro avidly denies this crime, but police also find that Biro faked a Social Security number to obtain a state i.d. card, so he is detained in prison without trial for two years.
The story flashes back to the effort Biro’s family made to fight against Idi Amin’s terror squads in the 1970s, and his decision to join the National Resistance Army (NRA) after his brother was killed. While in the army, his company visited the Kyemambe Girls School, and “poached” the girls, with the higher-ranking officers taking the prettiest.
“Me, on my part, I uh, don’t think I participated in it as much,” Biro tells us. “But I still got it. I think it was gonorrhea or chlamydia, or something like that.”
After the NRA seizes the capital, Biro is part of a battalion sent to Cuba for para-military training. In Havana, he’s diagnosed with hepatitis B, and it is possible that the injections he received caused him to contract HIV. He and 32 others are returned to Uganda, where they are diagnosed with the virus. That was in 1986.
”We were feeling okay and continued screwing like fucking hell,” Biro recounts. “Women and booze. That was our anesthesia until ’88 when people started dying. Then we got scared. I continued to screw with condoms, and once in a while without I should confess.”
By this time, most of the group from Cuba had died, while Biro receives leftover “meds” from his sister in the U.S. When he decides to emigrate, he is only able to get a visa to Canada, but later slips illegally into the U.S., where his relatives have found success in the form of Princeton degrees and SUVs.
Biro’s illegal status does not prevent him from being put on a federally funded AIDS research program, but since he can’t work at first, he stays with his sister and brother-in-law until they quarrel over him, and he leaves. It is then that he moves into the PWA home, takes a job at Extended Stay America, and lands in jail.
“I had many expectations when I came to the States,” Biro tells us. “Two years in a Texas jail was not one of them, even though I am getting legitimate medicine here…. If HIV medicine were affordable, I would be back home. But in Uganda, only the rich can afford medicine now. Everybody else is just dying. Please, help me.”
“Biro” was initially performed throughout Uganda, a nation that values oral story telling. The monologue is poetic on the page and politically important. Considering the scores of “storytellers” killed by AIDS, Mwine’s undertaking is historically significant.
At the Public Theater, however, the play’s production is not without problems. In a theater serving an affluent, Western-educated audience, there’s an inherent distancing that threatens to co-opt the audience into condescending toward the vast majority of the world’s PWAs. Guy De Bord, a French intellectual of the 1960s, warned that colonization, now more often termed globalization, corrupts for eternity; staging one man’s misery as a form of entertainment may be the ultimate form of that corruption.
After each show, Mwine holds a discussion with the audience. The night I was there, he told us that Biro is living in Canada and doing well, but that he was not very pleased with the show. When Mwine performed the show throughout Uganda, audience members were thrilled at finally finding a voice to represent their experiences. To honor this hugely generous act, “Biro” and Mwine deserve our support.
However, I must report that as theater, I found “Biro” disappointing. Rather than showing us his story, Mwine merely tells it, and we miss the elements of suspense and of identification that might otherwise have been there. In the end, the evening proved a dry experience.