Curtain Up
Jenny Sandman
Nothing can cripple a person like loneliness. That's when the devil starts working on you. ---Biro

Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine's solo show at the Public tackles the weighty issues of the African AIDS epidemic, draconian INS immigration laws, and freedom fighters, and ends with a blatant cry for help. Yet it's more heartwarming than it sounds.

Biro is a Ugandan immigrant landed in a Texas jail. In Uganda, his family were freedom fighters against Idi Amin. When he was old enough, he started a "revolution" at his boarding school demanding better food, then joined the country's resistance army. After many years as a soldier, he was sent to Cuba for additional revolutionary training. There he discovered he was HIV positive. He chronicles Africa's downward spiral into the AIDS epidemic--"I lost more friends as a result of AIDS than as a result of combat"--but when he realized he was still alive, he vowed to go to America where he could get AIDS drugs and continue living so that he could support his son.

But HIV positive status alone is enough to disqualify a person for legal immigration into America. Biro spent several years as an illegal immigrant, living in fear, trying to save up enough to buy a fake Social Security card--"I had to give up my identity in order to survive." He was put on a clinical trial as a human guinea pig because that was the only way he could legally get affordable drugs. He slipped into alcoholism and despair, and when he was arrested one night on a drunk and disorderly charge, INS discovered he was an illegal alien and held him for two years without trial in a Texas jail.

The story is compiled from Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine's work in Uganda. It's an honest, forthright look at AIDS and immigration that doesn't stoop to proselytizing or self-pity. Mwine's character is more than the sums of his problems; he lends a human and personal touch to the issues that shape his life. Mwine also fully inhabits Biro, with a heavy Ugandan accent and strange jerky movements. He obviously cares about his character and his play. He's done his research, which shows in the smooth dramaturgical arc and easy transitions.

Visually, this is not the most exciting show. Mwine wears an orange prison jumpsuit on an otherwise black and empty stage. But slides --of his childhood, of Uganda, of America -- are projected on a wall behind him. This lends poignancy as well as some much needed visual stimulation to the show. This is not a case of less being better than less. If anything, more slides would have been helpful.

In the end, the minimalist production style is a minor complaint in light of compared to the blunt power of the text. Ultimately, Biro is a thought-provoking, engaging look at some heavy problems, depressing though the subject matter may be.

Written and performed by Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine

Directed by Peter DuBois Lighting Design by Chad McArver Set Design by Riccardo Hernandez Sound Design by Acme Sound Partners Running time: One hour and thirty minutes with no intermission Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street; ; 212-239-6200 4/06/04 to 5/09/04; opened 4/21/04 Tuesday through Sunday at 8 pm, Saturdays and Sundays at 2 pm. All tickets $50 Reviewed by Jenny Sandman based on April 20th performance

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