Thursday, August 12, 2010

Time: An Interview with Ntare Mwine on His Play, Biro, and More

Time: An Interview with Ntare Mwine on His Play, Biro, and More

“'Time can change stuff, don’t just count on the present,' says Ntare Mwine as the main character in his one-man show, Biro." That's how my article Beware of Time started, as the cover story of A&U's June 2004. The story of Biro, told by playwright, actor and photographer Ntare Mwine, brought me a step closer to understanding the pandemic as it happened outside the U.S., on the African continent. Biro's story gave AIDS a new dimension, bringing an international perspective to the AIDS pandemic.

Also, I'd like to add a short note: recently, I have interviewed Mwine again for A&U: America's AIDS Magazine, and talked about his new play, A Missionary Position, and his special role as an activist in the fight for equal LGBT rights in Uganda.

Here is the cover story I wrote, years ago, about Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine and his play, Biro:

Beware of Time: An Interview with Actor, Photographer and Playwright Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, about the AIDS Play, Biro, which He Produced and Performed on the New York Stage

"Time can change stuff, don't just count on the present," says Ntare Mwine as the main character in his one-man show, Biro. The play, directed by Peter Dubois and written and produced by Mwine, is "a survival story. Within that is the sentiment of 'beware of time,'" Mwine explains as we sit at one of the round tables in the spacious lobby of New York City's Public Theater where the play is enjoying a New York City run. The story is drawn from real life, as is its character, Biro-short for "Mwerindebiro," which means, "beware of time because it has the answers." In terms of the play, it means: Have hope even if now you may be in a bad situation because in time things will get better.
As we talk, I recall Ntare's exceptional performance-he conveys Biro's courageous story with great majesty, identifying as much with Biro as with all the other people mentioned in his character's travels.

The story begins in a Texas immigration prison, from where Biro tells his story: Alone in his cell, dressed in a bright orange uniform, he makes a plea to the audience for help. He takes them on his journey from an early-eighties Uganda to the present-day United States. We first meet Biro as a young boy caught up in the Ugandan insurgency of 1979. As he helps liberate his country, he finds himself facing his own personal war against AIDS. Biro tells of his travels across Uganda, Cuba, and America, in search of treatment and freedom.

Ntare Mwine next to the Biro poster in New York City. Copyright 2004 by Alina Oswald.
Ntare Mwine next to the Biro poster in New York City. Copyright 2004 by Alina Oswald.
The show paints a realistic image of our First World society and its glamour, shadowed though it is by AIDS and immigration issues involving 9/11 events and related INS actions. Those living with HIV/AIDS, of course, cannot immigrate to the U.S. by federal law. The audience has a unique opportunity to see the American dream so many of us take for granted from a fresh perspective, through the eyes of an illegal immigrant and in the context of the contemporary AIDS crisis.

During the ninety-minute performance, Ntare uses slideshows of photographs to keep him company on the stage. The photos help make the audience more aware of Biro's world: an AIDS- and war-torn Uganda; Cuba, where "everything is Russian, except for [the] heat"; and the United States, "the land of honey and milk," as Biro describes these places. Sound effects emphasize the mood of each set of photos, which varies from serious to meditative to light and humorous. "Photos serve as memory, defining time and space," Ntare explains. A photo exhibit set up behind the lobby of the theater complements the show, and a documentary about Mwine's travels through Uganda, Cuba, and the U.S. as he researched and worked on his play is set to be shown at a later date.

The show ends full-circle with Biro's plea for help, and engages the audience to take an active role in his story even after the performance through an interactive Q&A session with the writer/actor.
"You can be passive or active [when responding to HIV/AIDS]," Ntare explains, talking with enthusiasm about his character. Biro chooses to be active in all aspects of his life, he tells me. He refuses to allow the HIV-positive diagnosis to alter his life. Sometimes he engages in unsafe sex "even after '88 when people started dying," as the character confesses. But Biro has a positive attitude and a strong will to win his battle with AIDS. He is determined not to let "the lion"-how one of his Ugandan friends calls the disease-eat him. Biro would do anything to survive, and so he travels all the way to the States and infiltrates, legally and illegally, the system in order to get treated.

"Biro is a story about coming out and the circumstances in which somebody comes out about an HIV/AIDS status," Mwine says. He sees the show as an educational tool for people living with HIV/AIDS and also a tool for thinking about democracy and immigration, issues made accessible through their incorporation into one person's story.

Talking with Ntare feels more like chatting with an old friend. There's no sign of any Hollywood glamour. He is soft-spoken and friendly, and seems comfortable in black silky pants and a blousy shirt with a bright, golden pattern. He wears tennis shoes. 

A first-generation Ugandan-American, Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine is a thirty-six-year-old actor, photographer, and writer who "lives in L.A. and writes in New York City." He has an MFA in Acting from New York University and completed his studies at The Moscow Arts Theater in Russia and The Royal National Theater in London. As an actor, he has appeared in TV shows such as E.R., Law & Order, and C.S.I. in guest-starring roles. Among other awards for his theatrical work, he received an NAACP Image Award nomination for Best Actor for his work in the national tour of Six Degrees of Separation. His photographic works have been exhibited at the United Nations and The Fowler Museum of Cultural History, to name only a few.

Biro is the artist's first play and the first project that has incorporated all of his skills as an actor, photographer, and writer. Though Ntare's fusion of himself and the character is so profound that audiences sometimes confuse the two, he is not Biro. Ntare accomplished this illusion through lots of hard work. Biro's story started in February, 2002, when Ntare went to visit Biro. As they talked, the artist began to "piece everything together." In order to identify with his character, Ntare took notes during the interview. "He was really my source," the artist explains. But he also visited the places that Biro had been so that he could do more research. Ntare learned a lot from talking with HIV-positive Ugandans, whose belief that they were going to win the battle with AIDS has been like a religion for them.

Seventy percent of the 42 million people in the world living with HIV or AIDS live in sub-Saharan Africa. In the eighties, Uganda was one of the countries from this region hit hardest by the pandemic. Nowadays, Uganda has transformed itself from a country with the largest number of HIV-positive people to the first success story in the area. AIDS education programs and awareness messages broadcast on the radio and in schools and churches started to make a difference and helped get rid of the fear of AIDS and the isolation of those living with the disease. In the last decade, while rates of HIV transmission have soared in other African countries, Uganda's HIV/AIDS level has fallen from fourteen to eight percent. Although there's still work to be done, Uganda is an example of what a country with limited resources can accomplish in the fight against the pandemic. Faced with huge obstacles like accessing treatment and quality of life issues, Ugandans prepared for them "piece by piece," as Ntare expressed it.

And Ntare followed their one-step-at-a-time example when preparing for the role. But he also had to adjust his physical appearance for the stage. How? Ntare shows me his driver's license picture...same person, though the thirty-five fewer pounds difference is clearly visible. He went on what he calls a "Biro diet," consisting only of Indian food. He also gave up desserts, which was hard as he confesses that he has "a big sweet tooth." He lost the weight in four months and now the "Biro diet" is an integral part of his life.

When first starting out, "I produced [the show] with two projectors," Ntare says, smiling at the memory. "It was my biggest challenge." But it also gave him the courage to go on. He has a strong supporter in his wonderful Cuban wife, Ena, whom I had the pleasure to meet.

Biro world-premiered at the National Theater in Uganda, in January, 2003. The script impressed a British producer before he even saw a performance. The result? Biro premiered in London in the fall of that same year. A few months later, the show found its way across the Atlantic and premiered in the U.S. at the Public Theater in New York City in April of this year.

Mwine's dream is to tour the entire African continent and, also, the States with the play. He talks about bringing the play to Canada, where the real Biro is living now, and inviting him on stage.
As I listen to Ntare I become more curious about the real Biro, the anonymous person behind the character.

"Oh, it's okay now," Ntare answers the question I hesitate to ask. "[Biro] is my uncle." The artist has known him since childhood. Biro is family and Ntare takes that very much to heart. He bailed his uncle out of jail and helped him settle, legally, in Canada, where Biro now lives and receives free HIV/AIDS medication. Also, not having to fear his illegal immigrant status anymore, Biro is ready to come out about his HIV-positive status. I wonder about his health but Ntare waves my worries away with his hand, assuring me that his uncle is all right now.

"Sometimes, when you struggle, you don't see how people look at you," Ntare says. His uncle saw it firsthand during the play's presentation at the Annual Uganda-North American Convention, in Las Vegas, in September, 2002.

Ntare's face beams with enthusiasm as he talks about producing the play, an experience with a profound impact on the artist's life.

What was the response to the play in Uganda? Ntare tells me Ugandan audiences were "very receptive to the piece from the very beginning." He says: "There was a time when AIDS overwhelmed everything." During trying times people need a hero's story, he says, because it "gives them hope." And Ntare gave them a hero-he gave them Biro. From a Ugandan perspective, the story is unique because, although a soldier's story, it's not told from a military perspective but from a personal one, symbolizing the people of Uganda. Biro is their reflection and that's why Ugandans connect so strongly with the character, says Ntare.

Ntare decided to produce the play as a one-man show because he believes it's "the most challenging way to tell the story," and also because it is a Ugandan way of telling the story. "There is a moving feeling about the play," Mwine explains. "It's not just drama, it's real life. It's so many people's stories."

Because Biro incorporates actual testimonials and old and new photos, some Ugandan audience members have recognized their own relatives lost to war or to AIDS and were grateful that their loved ones continue to live on through the play, he says. Ntare also shares impressive stories about "Slim"-another word for AIDS used in Africa because of the body wasting caused by the disease. He recalls how AIDS stigma affects families. One story stands out: When an HIV-positive mother of four found out that three of her children were also positive, she refused to let doctors identify who they were, fearing that she, or other members of her family, would treat them differently.

"Ugandans see theater as a tool for development," Mwine explains. Artists create work, which, in turn, creates a change in a community. He hopes that his play will teach people how to cope with the stigma of having AIDS or being HIV-positive.

While overseas, Ntare joined other Ugandan artists in their AIDS advocacy work. He paired up with members of AIDS organizations and used his play as a dialogue-opening tool, something easy to facilitate because all Ugandan organizations have theater groups where people come and tell-and dramatize-their own stories. 

The artist took his play to schools around the country and involved students in exchanging their opinions about the story with one another. Students worked with masks, an African symbol but never used in Uganda until then, and paintings. In each school, students made their own masks using materials found in their local villages-inner tubes, straws, bark, cloth. Students chose different masks to represent different topics: HIV/AIDS, opportunistic infections, to name a few. One of the students in the workshop picked a mask and wore it in front of the class and the others had to ask the mask questions. 

Ntare's voice vibrates with excitement-"Let me show you..."-and he turns on his laptop. A few minutes later, we browse through several photos taken during his workshops in Ugandan schools. 

The masks are pure ingenuity! With vivid colors and fluffy brows and beards made from straw, some masks have a serious expression. Others have a smile as long as the inner tube used in place of the mouth. The paintings are just as impressive. 

But that's not all. Some photos show a masked student standing by a tall chart displaying mask-appropriate syndromes. Others show a highly interactive session during which AIDS activists and students share their knowledge. 

This constitutes what Ntare calls the "loose structure of a play that could be performed in all schools." He is optimistic about the success of this kind of interactive program and believes something similar would also work in the U.S.

The nostalgic smile washes away and Ntare's face becomes serious as he talks about the AIDS epidemic in the States. "Most affected," he says, "are the youth and minorities." In the States, AIDS is still a problem, especially if patients don't have money for medications. Ntare strongly believes that people can fight AIDS and its still-existing stigma through dialogue. And perseverance. After all, Ntare says, "perseverance is what fighting AIDS is all about."

As always, thanks for stopping by!

Alina Oswald
Author of Journeys Through Darkness A Biography of AIDS
featuring images by award winning photographer Kurt Weston

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