9 April, 2002

Mwine, the Ugandan artist in America

DETERMINED: Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine is soon coming to Uganda to perfect his play

-- He is also an actor driven by the non-conformist drive to be completely original
By Opiyo Oloya
As he nimbly weaves his late model Volvo S40 through Los Angelesí heavy afternoon traffic on Highway 10 toward San Bernardino, Hollywood actor Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine is talking animatedly about his newest project.
A-one-person play based on a story that begins in Uganda and concludes in the USA.
The day before, he had read the play for a select audience that included visiting Ugandans at Ngoma Restaurant, an African eatery on Wiltshire Boulevard in Hollywood. A previous engagement forced me to leave mid-way through the two-hour presentation. As he narrates the rest of the story, Mwine whose television credits include ER, CSI, HBOís, Don King, Only in America and Law and Order to name a few, intently avoids the traffic jam by changing lanes often.
Seated in the passenger seat, I find myself wondering what makes the man tick-what gets him going, for he seems constantly on the move with unbridled energy and talent.
We are on our way to see his critically acclaimed collection of Cuban photographs currently on display at the Latino Art Museum in Pomona as part of the Cuban Art Festival running through April 6. Although this is our second meeting in as many days, Ntare cracks jokes as if we have known each other all our lives. He turns out exactly as he sounds on the phone-exceedingly sensitive, polite with piercing intellect. Often where a simple answer would suffice for most people, Mwine will dig deeper until he peers inside your skull.
But now he is excited by the new play, he tells me. The story titled Biro, short for Mwerindabiro, the name of the main character, begins in Uganda in the early 1980s, when Biro, a young man goes into the jungle to join Museveniís National Resistance Army. The former rebel tells about his ordeal in the bush, his discharge later from the NRA and eventual journey to the US where he struggles for survival and eventually lands in jail for getting into a fistfight.
In the play, Mwine brings Biro to life by appropriating the former rebelís voice complete with Kinyankole accent, no mean feat considering the fact that Mwine grew up in America, has never lived in Uganda, and has no detectable accent.
"Sure, itís a Uganda story, but there is a universal appeal because of elements such as greed, disillusionment and hope," he explains to answer the question I am hesitating to ask.
"Itís a story that appeals to me so much that I have no trouble assuming the character of Biro," he adds as he reverses the Volvo into a tight parking spot outside the Art Museum.

Gallery director, Graciela Nardi, meets us at the door. The effervescent curator invites us inside with a flourish. It is a small cozy gallery with red brick walls decorated with the works of various Cuban artists such as Mayra Alpizar, Yanepsi Chavez, Rolando Estevez, Carlos Oliva and Rafael Acosta Alvarez. At a corner by the entrance stands one of Mwineís functional arts-a coffee table inlaid with ceramic tiles and a glass top, and wrought iron legs.
He flicks a switch at the side and top of the table lights up to reveal a blown up Cuban photograph. "I designed the whole thing myself, though the iron work was done by a blacksmith. But, I put it all together," he says. The table costs a cool US$1500.
As we walk through the gallery, I begin to wonder whether Mwine has more love for photography than for the stage. Here, surrounded by his photographic art he is transformed into a little boy in a candy store, his face beaming brightly.
He tells me with a twinkle in his eyes that one of the top selling Cuban photographs is the one with only the legs of a prostitute sticking out of a doorway-the story goes that as he lifted the camera to take the picture in Havana, the seated woman suddenly hid her head into a doorway, leaving only her stocking thighs and shoes in the picture. I agree that it is an excellent shot since it is hard to tell whether the woman is sleeping or drunk. But what catches my laymanís eyes is the custom wooden frame which Mwine tells me was rescued from a dumpster. Without trying to hide the rough origin of the wood, or the fact that it was partly eaten by termite, he has created an original work of art that is both beautiful and very expensive-the piece costs $550.
By the time we are through with the exhibit, I am convinced that Mwine is a very talented young artist who is driven by a non-conformist desire to be completely original in everything he does. This is confirmed later in the evening when he invites me to his house to meet his lovely wife Ena.

The entire house is art, from the designer coffee table and sofa, the high bed and photographs on the dining room wall, and the study room whose walls are plastered with the script for the one-person play. Over Indian take-out dinner and salad that Ena made, we talk and laugh like old friends. I feel completely at home.
As we part company, Mwine tells me he will travel to Uganda in mid April to do more research on Biro, the play. He plans to work with three Uganda actors at the National Theatre, this way he will tell what works best.
"I am excited to be going home in three weeks time to work with Uganda actors, and bring along my wife Ena to Africa for the first time," he said as he brings his car to a stop in front of my LA hotel. As he speeds away into LA night traffic, it dawns on me that, above all, Mwine is an artist who demands nothing short of perfection.
Actors interested in participating in the workshop for Biro should contact Sarah Zawedde at the National Theatre.

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