Sunday December 15, 2002

A Prodigal Actor Brings His Gift To A Home Crowd

--Mwine's one-man play is a Ugandan story, but is capable of moving audiences world-wide

By Opiyo Oloya
When Biro, the play, premiers in Uganda this January, its creator and principal actor, Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, will have achieved a lifelong dream to share his talents with Ugandans.
Mwine, whose acting credits include a long list of television and stage performances in Los Angeles and New York, has always identified completely with Uganda. Though his artistic career began in America where he grew up as a child, he looked beyond America for his material and inspiration. His photographs documenting life in Cuba, Uganda and Russia remain in high demand. But deep down, he wanted to get up close and personal with his ancestral land.
For him, Uganda came to symbolise more than just the land where his parents, grandparents and his great grandparents were born. It became the very source of his cultural reawakening and spiritual identity. Yet, though he returned home often and even attended workshops organised by the late Professor Rose Mbowa of the Music, Dance and Drama Department in Makerere University, he never had opportunity to perform for his native people. The longing to perform before the home crowd grew ever so more immediate when he remembered the words of professor Mbowa, who used to urge him to "reach out" to his people.
The opportunity came one day as he sat listening to a Ugandan friend tell his story as a former rebel soldier with the National Resistance Army. At that very moment, the idea of Biro was born- It was the answer to his search for material that could bring him back to his roots.
Almost immediately, he began working on the story, which is set in Uganda and in the USA. From the outset, he faced big challenges. For example, he had to write a story that would resonate with audiences in Tel Aviv, Kampala, Ouagadougou, Pretoria or New York. In other words, Biro needed to be believable and to do that, Mwine wrote a one-person play with himself as the only actor on stage.
Narrated in the first-person, Biro is the story of a young idealistic Ugandan man who joins the NRA, spends time in the bush, and is finally discharged from the army after it was discovered that he had contracted HIV/AIDS. The former soldier moves to America in search of drugs for his illness, as well as the means to support himself and his little boy. In the new country, Biro discovers that life is anything but rosy- There are many problems, not the least of which is an intense feeling of loneliness.
For Mwine, who has spent the last two years pouring sweat and money into researching, writing and rewriting Biro, the story gives him the voice he needed to dialogue with Ugandans. And in order to achieve the deepest level of artistic authenticity for the entire duration of the one-and-half-hour-long play, he had to break away from the tightly-scripted world of television acting and drink straight from Ankole's ancestral well of story-telling. The result is a very taut, refreshing, vibrant and riveting tale that, by turn, makes you laugh, cry and laugh again. In fact, when he field-tested the play in September during the Uganda North American Association Convention in Las Vegas, the response was unanimously positive. Many in the audience were awed by Mwine's chameleon-like change of voices, which moved flawlessly between an Ankole and American accents, and his depth as an actor. Moreover, the simple set gave the feeling that he was telling the story to just one person--you.
But, the most moving part of the play is the story telling, its intensity, focus and above all, the ordinariness of the voice.
Biro could be anybody- your brother, your father, your uncle, your husband, or your grandfather- who rises up to face life's difficult challenges without complaining. He is the Uganda farmer whose crops are burnt to a cinder by the hot sun, yet wakes up every morning to go his shamba; he is the civil servant who must work with corruption and big lies, yet continues to hope that things will get better; he is the street-child who finds laughter amidst the savage landscape of street life. He is the ordinary Ugandan who cannot afford to lose hope because that is all he or she has got.
Indeed, so real is Biro that it would be a rare Ugandan who will not see himself or herself reflected in the character whom the audience grows to love, identify with and want to reach out and touch. But then Biro will move audiences in Tel Aviv, Rio de Janeiro, Gaza City, New York, Moscow, Havana, or, for that matter, anywhere in the world where people face difficult circumstances. It is the story of life itself.
Still, ever the perfectionist, Mwine continues to work furiously in Los Angeles for his stage appearance in Uganda. Taking no chances, he has prepared for the role by losing 35 pounds and growing a beard. But, uppermost, he is preparing his soul for the return home to connect with Ugandans and be completely reborn by the experience, before taking Biro on the road to other parts of the world. By that time, he will no longer be called Mwine, the American born actor of Ugandan descent. He will simply be Mwine, the artist.

Published on: Thursday, 5th December, 2002

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