17th January, 2003

Ntare's long road to Biro

HARD WORKER: Ntare Mwine's efforts have finally paid off with the Biro play
By Kalungi Kabuye

The story of Biro is a long one. It is a story about a young Ugandan boy who grew up during Idi Amin's time, fought the bush war with President Yoweri Museveni, and who eventually ends up in America.

The story of the play is an equally long one, according to Ntare Mwine, the man who researched it, wrote it, and will perform it at the National Theatre next week. And the stress showed on his face when The New Vision talked to him last week.

It was one of those typical days for the actor who started his work at 7:00am, and had not stopped by 6:00pm, when he took time off to have lunch at an Indian restaurant on Dewinton Road, and talk about the play that he has always wanted to put up and what it has taken for him to finally realise his dream.

"I've always wanted to do a play about Uganda, about the people from home and what it means to have been a Ugandan all these years," he said while pondering the menu and what was available for lunch at that late hour.

"There are Ugandans here who want to go to America, who think that would solve their problems. But there are Ugandans who are facing a lot of problems in America. How do you reconcile these two perspectives? That is what I have been looking for all this time."

And there was the fact that although he has spent most of his life in the US and done most of his acting there, including stints in Hollywood, he planned to eventually settle in Uganda, and wanted to be able to make a living here, so what better way than what he knew best?

He started out by asking Ugandans he met in America about their stories and their experiences. Maybe he could put them together and find something he could work with. But all the time, the story was right in front of him, literally.

There was this person (no names, please) Ntare has known for almost all his life, and the story of this ex-soldier almost completely mirrored the Ugandan experience, the story that Ntare has been trying to tell all these years.

"I got very excited when I first realised I had found what I had been looking for," Ntare said. "It was still in the early stages, but I knew this was it. It was almost too good to be true, but it was. No artist or writer could have come up with such a story, unless he was a genius."

The person Ntare was talking about is actually a relative of his, a man he had known on and off for quite a while.

As the true story goes, Biro (not real name) was born during Uganda's troubled times. He grew up when Idi Amin was life President of Uganda, and when Milton Obote rigged the 1980 elections, Biro joined the-then rebel leader Museveni in the bush.

When the National Resistance Army took over power, Biro came out of the bush with them and joined the new cadre that saw a new beginning. But matters quickly turned sour, Biro found out he had AIDS, and when he got very ill from the disease, his friends and relatives left him for dead.

Somehow, he found himself in the USA, where circumstances got worse. He found himself in prison, and then homeless on the streets of what was supposed to be his Shangri La.

Sick, alone and far away from home, this is the story that Ntare Mwine tells in Biro, a 90-minute, one-character play with special effects that opens on January 22, and will run till February 2.

"I knew I had the story, but I did not know where I was going with it. Would it be a play, a book, or even a movie?" Ntare recollects. "It was like a puzzle, I had all the pieces but not the final picture."

So he set out to find the rhythm of the story, from the 30 hours of taped conversation that took a year to transcribe, and produced over 1,500 pages.

To give a true account, Ntare came home last year for two months, and let the story seep into his very pores. He visited the place where Biro was born, went to the bush where he fought, and jogged with soldiers in the barracks where Biro stayed.

"It was very exciting to go the places which Biro talks about in his story," Ntare said.

"The whole story became tangible, while before it was just a concept. Someone can describe a colour to you, but it is not real till you see it."

While in Uganda, Ntare also worked with local actors to get a different perspective. He worked with actors like Phillip Luswata, Charles Mulekwa, Eve Tumwesigye and Kaaya Kagimu Mukasa.

Then he went back to the USA and performed it at the Uganda North America Convention in Las Vegas. He did not know what to expect.

"The response was amazing," he recalls. "I didn't know what to expect because these were the people whose story I was telling, the people I wanted to listen to it. And the reaction was amazing, they felt it keenly."

But first he had to raise the money. After selling over $4,000 worth of his photographs in a one-day exhibition, he did odd jobs and took out personal loans to finance the project.

Back home, he found sponsorship from the Kampala Casino, The New Vision, Crown Beverages, Capital FM, JESA Farm Dairy Ltd, and WBS television. Others were Uganda Consulthouse and Wendell Pierce. He worked with a team that included Robert Serumaga as director and Michael Wawuyo as the stage manager.

Then there was the little thing of losing weight. "When I was here last year, I took a picture with my aunt, and realised how healthy I was looking. But I was trying to portray a person who was under extreme stress, who is sick, has just been in prison, and an alcoholic, so I had to lose weight," he said.

So Ntare started out on what he calls the 'Biro Diet.' He cut out all starch and things like bread, rice and potatoes, and his favourite desserts.

He ate mainly Indian food. As a result he has come down from 185 pounds (84 kg) last year to roughly 150 pounds (68 kg), a loss of about 16 kilograms.

So, next Wednesday when the curtain is raised on the play Biro at the National Theatre, Ntare Mwine will be completing one stage of a journey that, if he has his way, will take him all around Africa, and possibly beyond, doing what he likes to do and making a living out of it.

Published on: Friday, 17th January, 2003

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