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Sunday, April 3, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Theater

AIDS theater now: A continent's crisis

Seattle Times theater critic

In April of last year, two AIDS dramas ran side by side at New York's Public Theatre.

One was a revival of Larry Kramer's polemic 1985 play "The Normal Heart," about a white, homosexual New York journalist trying to expose governmental indifference to a lethal new epidemic.

The other piece, "Biro" by Ugandan-American actor and writer Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, is a bare-space solo play about the travails of a heterosexual Ugandan man (based on a relative of Mwine's) who has AIDS. Only now it's the 21st century, there are drugs that can mitigate the disease — and he can't afford them, until he resettles (illegally) in the U.S.

Viewed back to back, "Biro" (which opens a three week Seattle run this week at Empty Space Theatre) and "The Normal Heart" bracket 20 years of the AIDS pandemic, and AIDS drama.

But "Biro" represents the more typical human face of the disease today. About 25.4 million men, women and children are living with AIDS/HIV in sub-Saharan Africa — compared with about a million in North America.

And according to recent reports by AfricaFocus, only one of 10 Africans who need the life-extending anti-retroviral AIDS drugs can purchase them.

"Direct and elemental"

With its unadorned narrative style and global scope, "Biro" promises to be quite a departure from the more theatrically elaborate and cosmopolitan American AIDS dramas of the 1980s and '90s — including Tony Kushner's celebrated "Angels in America."

Unlike many of those earlier AIDS plays, "Biro" doesn't focus on homophobia. Nor, says Empty Space artistic director Allison Narver, does "it use AIDS as a metaphor for anything else. There's something direct and elemental about the piece that's fascinating."

There are other contrasts, agrees Mwine, a slender, bearded, soft-spoken man of 37.

"When AIDS hit in the States, it hit a community that was fairly mobilized, fairly affluent and very vocal. When it hit in Africa it was just the opposite. So for a long time the African stories weren't told with the same fervor or power, in the same venues."

Biro (portrayed by Mwine) conveys his own story from a Texas jail cell, where he's landed after an illegal stint working and seeking medical treatment in the U.S.

The 90-minute, semifictional monologue serves "as a catalyst for discussing a host of issues," says its author. "It's so hard to reinvigorate the dialogue about AIDS. A lot of people have grown complacent about the problem.

"But it's too easy to distance ourselves, to say it's not our country that's suffering the most and not our concern. It's on our doorstep, right now."

Reopening Empty Space

Narver was encouraged to bring Mwine's show to Seattle by its New York director, Peter Dubois, and Roberta Levitow, a former Seattle director who now heads the organization Theatre Without Borders.

"It's very timely dealing with AIDS and immigration, AIDS in Africa," says Narver. "But aesthetically the play also feels right, because it's a large, expansive story told incredibly simply."

Empty Space, acknowledges Narver, is just getting back on its feet after an emergency funding campaign that staved off closure. "This is a great way to reopen the theater, with a survival story performed in an 'empty space' that becomes a stage, a world."

New York critics praised the sincerity and candor of "Biro," though some found the play (Mwine's first) rambling and uneven.

But even before its Off-Broadway run, the timely subject matter, the attached exhibit of Mwine's vivid photographs of Uganda and its people, and the sheer passion behind the project had already transported "Biro" from Kampala, Uganda, to an African Union summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (where U.N. head Kofi Annan was in the audience). It also had a London run and wider exposure as a BBC World Service radio broadcast.

According to Mwine, "I wasn't trying to write a sermon or an educational tool, but tell a story and raise questions. And I wanted to show this new category of refugees in the world — medical refugees."

Another goal: to reveal the stark circumstances Third World immigrants can encounter in the U.S. — especially now, as our borders tighten to ward off new terrorist attacks and pandemics.

"You meet immigrants in the U.S. from other places and often don't know what their lives were like before, and why they came here," the actor-writer explains. "We don't usually understand what these people had to go through. And we tend to oversimplify the process."

Two worlds

Though Mwine was determined to tell Biro's story, it's far from his own. Born in New Hampshire to Ugandan parents studying law and psychology, he was educated in London, Canada and the U.S. He lives in Los Angeles with his Cuban wife, and has worked steadily as an actor. (In Seattle, he appeared in ACT Theatre's "Scent of the Roses" in 1998.)

Feeling "comfortable in both worlds," however, Mwine visits his family in Uganda regularly. And from that struggling East African nation's tragic history of despotism, civil war, poverty and AIDS, he gathered inspiration for "Biro" and for a companion documentary film, "Beware of Time" (which will be screened free at Empty Space).

Much of his research for "Biro" came from long conversations with the Ugandan relative the script is based on. (Respecting the man's request for anonymity, Mwine renamed him Biro in the play, short for Mwerindebiro, which in essence means "Beware of time.")

This particular survival saga included fighting in Uganda's war of liberation in 1979, getting an AIDS diagnosis in Cuba (during military training there) and watching friends die of the disease in Uganda — one of the African countries hit earliest and hardest by AIDS.

After fleeing to the U.S., the relative scammed to stay here illegally. And in the play, his dramatic surrogate confesses to alcoholism, a hot temper, sexual recklessness and disastrous clashes with relatives and the law.

In Mwine's view, such imperfections "make Biro a more human, real character. It's the human story people respond to. I think the play challenges you, pushes you. Some people are offended by Biro. But his story is not cut-and-dried."

Guerrilla theater

Mwine saved and borrowed $10,000 to debut "Biro" at the National Theatre in Kamala, Uganda in 2003, before an eager audience.

"It felt like I was telling the story to family there, as opposed to acquaintances," he recalls. "They knew the people in the stories, in the photographs ...

"It was the first time a story like this had been told in a formal, dramatic setting in Uganda. And most Ugandans hadn't heard of the hardships people face going to the U.S., the kinds of obstacles Biro had to overcome to survive."

Today, a year after its off-Broadway run, "Biro" is a full-time job for Mwine. After Seattle he'll tour it in Kenya. "I still keep pinching myself," he says with a gentle laugh. "It was a piece of guerrilla theater that turned into a once-in-a-lifetime event."

And the "real" Biro? "He's now living in another country, which I agreed not to name, and trying to survive there."

Mwine believes Uganda is now confronting its AIDS crisis more constructively under the leadership of President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni. But securing widespread treatment remains an economic and geopolitical dilemma. Violent attacks by rebels have destabilized the northern part of Uganda. And massive infusions of foreign aid to fight AIDS in Africa (particularly from the U.S. government) have been slow in coming.

"I want the show to ask questions rather than give answers," Mwine states, "because I don't know all the answers. It's the questions that begin a dialogue. And dialogue can ultimately bring change."

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

Information in this article, originally published April 3, was corrected April 18. An earlier version of this story erroneously reported that the play "Biro" was performed at a global AIDS summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. "Biro" was actually performed at an African Union summit in Addis Ababa, where AIDS was one of numerous topics addressed.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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