New York Newsday
BY GORDON COX
April 21, 2004
It's a little like breakdancing, the way Mwerinde Ebiro moves his body. As played by the actor and playwright Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, he stands on wide-set legs with his shoulders straight as a yoke, gesturing stiffly in movements that seem to originate from his elbows. The effect is rhythmic and nearly mechanical. It also suggests frailty: At times his body wobbles as if his bones were brittle and his joints were threatening to collapse.
The character is indeed weak, due to the HIV and AIDS he has battled for nearly 20 years. The life story of this tall Ugandan immigrant - call him Biro for short - provides the affecting subject of "Biro," which opened at the Public on Sunday. The tale begins in Uganda in the late 1970s, and ends in a jail in Texas in 2004.
Biro is a fictional creation, but he lives very much in the real world. Mwine, a first-generation Ugandan-American, based his script on interviews he conducted in Uganda in 2002. He manages to connect a number of pressing social and political issues - AIDS, immigration, the violent political history of Africa - under a single biographical arc.
The clean, minimal production, directed by Peter DuBois, puts the focus squarely on Mwine, who lends a precise idiosyncrasy to Biro's physical life and a musical cadence to his speech. Dressed in orange prison clothes, he stands in front of a screen on which projected photographs enhance Biro's stories, whose subjects range from joining the resistance army in Uganda to scoring a low-paying job at an American Kmart. (Mwine took the sober, carefully composed photos; others of his are on display in the lobby of the Public.)
Set designer Riccardo Hernandez subtly evokes Biro's jail cell by hanging prison bars high over the square playing space, like a lid. He turns the stage into a memory box where atmospheric noises (provided by Acme Sound Partners) echo distantly from the past, and the lights (by Chad McArver) shift from chilly to warm to shadowy in concert with Biro's remembrances.
The far-ranging plot of "Biro" touches on so many topical issues that it occasionally feels a little dutiful, like a worthwhile, intelligent but dry documentary. In general, though, Mwine gives Biro enough personality to overcome that pitfall, and in the end he acknowledges that the play is a movingly open plea for action.
Biro's full name, we learn early on, means "beware of time," as in: Be careful how you treat those you deem lesser than you, because someday your situations may be reversed. With a tale that spans 25 years and operates on both a personal and a political level, Mwine makes the idea resonate for Biro as a character, for Americans as individuals, and for the United States as a nation.
BIRO. Written and performed by Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, directed by Peter DuBois. Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., Manhattan.
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