Biro is captivating
By DAMASO REYES
It has been some time since the New York stage has seen an actor so inhabit a character that all vestiges of the performer disappear and the audience is carried along with him into a new world. In his one man play “Biro,” writer-performer Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine does this spectacularly, telling the story of a man trapped by birth, circumstance and time who tries to fight against all of them in an attempt to have his voice heard over the din of a society that is trying hard not to hear him.
Based on a true story, “Biro” is the tale of one of Mr. Mwine’s relatives. We see the title character on a bare black platform in an orange jumpsuit. Other than a screen behind him, which projects images from time to time, there is nothing other than Biro on stage, a brave choice for a performer who has to hold the attention of a New York audience for nearly 90 continuous minutes.
Born in Uganda, Biro has led a life which mirrors that of his birth nation as it struggled during the 20th century to throw off the yoke of various oppressive regimes. Biro’s family is targeted when the government learns that his brother is part of the resistance and much of his family is forced into exile. Biro, being the youngest of the large family, stays behind while his brothers and sisters are flung to the far reaches of the globe.
It is important to note here that Mwine’s performance is total and captivating. Every inflection, movement and intonation is dead on. We aren’t simply captivated by a riveting story, which it is; Mwine’s performance is so powerful that the audience has no choice but to be rapt. But in no way does the delivery detract from the story; they complement each other to the point that many in the audience accosted the star after the show, asking him about his ordeal in prison and thanking him for sharing his story, much to the chagrin of Mr. Mwine.
Biro’s name is short for Mwerinde ebiro, which is a proverb loosely translated as “beware of time.” That time has a way of reversing fortunes and positions.
“The main reason I came to the United States was for medicine/That was the primary goal along with taking care of my son/But accompanied with these I had also other expectations,” Biro says in the first lines of the show.
As a teenager Biro followed in his brothers’ footsteps and joined the rebels, who eventually would come to power in Uganda. As a member of an elite army intelligence unit, Biro is sent along with others for special training in Cuba, where he and many other are diagnosed with an illness and sent home. Upon their arrival they are greeted by the president, who informs them they have HIV, the virus which causes AIDS.
That is when Biro’s journey to America begins, in search of medicine and a livelihood to provide for his son. Biro’s story shifts from heartbreaking to humorous and Mwine never misses a beat, hitting every note while pulling our heart strings or tickling our funny bone.
“Nothing can cripple a person like loneliness,” Biro tells us early on. The story of Biro gives us a chance to hear a story that happens every day to thousands if not tens of thousands of people. Biro’s story in America is even more compelling than his life in Uganda as he comes face to face with the gap between the symbolism of America with the famous inscription on the base of the Statue of Liberty – “Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free/The wretched refuse of your teeming shore/Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me/I lift my lamp beside the golden door” – words Biro repeats with hope and optimism, and the reality of a nation which now shuns immigrants, and in Biro’s case, imprisons them when they are undocumented.
While many who may consider themselves liberal or socially conscious members of society feel they know all about HIV or immigration issues and don’t need to see a play like “Biro,” these are exactly the people who need to see this play. “Biro” goes beyond metaphor and rhetoric and tells a deeply personal story that touches the heart and inspires the mind. Forget what you think you know and go see “Biro.”
“Biro” is currently playing at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street in Manhattan, www.publictheater.org.