For all the extraordinary history and color Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine has infused into Biro, his play at the Public Theater's LuEsther Hall, the show is a strangely sedate and off-putting one. You feel the need to understand, accept, and sympathize with a man's troubled life, but it's difficult to take the play's message - or its central character - into your heart for very long.
It should be stated that that central character and Mwine are not one and the same. Biro, who was born in Uganda and spent much of his early life there, is now a prisoner in a Texas jail, relating his life story to his attorney. And, though Mwine plays Biro, the additional layer of removal doesn't make the piece more confusing, though it doesn't make it easy for Mwine to make Biro's story fully his own.
His work in assembling the character of Biro, both on the page and on the stage, is admirable, but not quite strong enough to make the play a wholly fulfilling one. Cobbled together from many hours of interviews with the subject (whose real name Mwine does not give), Biro never feels as successful as a piece of theatre as it does a history of a man, a culture, and even a disease (in this case, AIDS). Biro informs directly, but is theatrical only by association.
As for the show's main character, Biro has been living with AIDS for years, but thanks to some well-timed drug experiments, he's managed to stave off death. What he hasn't managed to do is escape Texas law enforcement: they caught up with him following up on an employer's claim that he stole $300 from them. While he insists it isn't true, he's not completely innocent of wrongdoing - he's illegally lived and worked in the country for years.
But that's just the most recent chapter in his life story: before that, he was a freedom fighter in Uganda and Cuba, a womanizer, a father, and a tireless worker. Biro follows its subject's story from his earliest days at school, when he discovered the necessity of being involved in politics, through a life in the military, a life on the edge, and then a life on the run.
In many ways it's an epic story, and Mwine's characterization of Biro - down to his thick accent - is very complete. Biro has a habit of repeating words and tripping over his thoughts, he doesn't apologize for his promiscuity, he wants to make a better life for his son politically and financially, and he doesn't understand why the United States granted rights to September 11 terrorists that he was not able to obtain. From disbelief to anger to confusion and even humor - and some parts of Biro are quite funny - Mwine plays the character very well; he's an effusive, efficient performer, with almost enough stage presence to make up for the dark, sometimes suffocating play surrounding him.
That he's never able to shine sufficient dramatic illumination on his material is one of the play's biggest problems. The piece, already more oral history than play, can't be easy to stage, but director Peter DuBois doesn't do much to bring spice or theatricality out of the writing. Riccardo Hernández's set is little more than a platform lined with sand and a large black rear wall on which projections (designed by Peter Nigrini) of Mwine's own photos are displayed. The photos are artistically beautiful, but don't do much to aid the show's drama. The lights (by Chad McArver) and Mwine's costume - an orange prison outfit for which no designer is credited - are also of little help.
It's interesting to note the central character's full name is Mwerinde ebiro, or "beware of time," meaning that, given long enough, nothing needs to be permanent. Perhaps the fullness of time will be kinder to both the real Biro - whoever he may be - and the play he inspired, but despite a couple of occasional flashes of brilliance, Biro itself never really works.