The famous Ugandan-American Hollywood actor, playwright, director, producer and photographer Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine is revelling in the success of his critically acclaimed debut play Biro that changed his acting career and advises Ugandan artistes to pick a leaf from his successful production.
“Biro,” a riveting play that thrilled audiences around the world in the mid-2000s is a multimedia solo performance piece which was Ntare’s first attempt as a playwright, which eventually catapulted him into international stardom.
Based on a true story, the play tells a sad story of Biro, the title character, right from his days as a former rebel solider in the National Resistance Army (NRA) in Uganda, to his HIV-positive diagnosis in Cuba, to his illegal immigration to the United States of America and eventual incarceration in a Texas prison, and how his dreams are dashed.
Set in a Texas prison, the play begins with Biro pleading for assistance from an immigration lawyer. He finds himself at the forefront global war on HIV/Aids. He is diagnosed HIV-positive in 1986, a time when medication and sympathy were unavailable and stigma was rife. We learn of the toll the epidemic takes on his family and friends, and come to understand the difficult choice he makes that eventually leads to his illegal immigration to the United States as a medical refugee and his eventual incarceration there.
The title Biro is taken from the Runyankore word “mwerinde ebiro” which means, “beware of time because it has the answers.”
The script was inspired by the true story of Ntare’s relative who prefers to remain anonymous. Ntare interviewed his relative between 2001 and 2002 before traveling to Uganda to fine-tune the script.
Written, directed and performed by Ntare, the 90-minute play premiered at the National Theatre in Kampala in January 2003.
After its world premiere in Kampala, the play was subsequently staged in London, then it made its American premiere in New York at The Joseph Papp Public Theatre where it made ‘‘The New York Times critics pick list.” The New York Times called it “An eloquent, intimate solo piece.”
In May 2004, a 30-minute version of the play was broadcast throughout Africa by the BBC World Service. Ntare performed it at the African Union Summit in Ethiopia before UN-General Secretary Kofi Annan in 2004.
It showed at The Market Theatre in Johannesburg, South Africa, in October 2004 and at Seattle’s Empty Space Theater in the US in April 2005. It was staged at Kenya’s National Theatre in Nairobi in May 2005 and in Harare, Zimbabwe in July 2005. It also showed in Ethiopia, Los Angeles in the US and Toronto in Canada.
Ntare, who is also a stage actor, documentarian and activist, was recently appointed as Uganda’s goodwill cultural tourism ambassador. Part of his mission as ambassador is to market and promote the talents of Uganda and its beautiful landscape.
“I have been appointed as cultural ambassador so it is now my mission to bring flocks to Uganda, who do not know the beauty of this country. But it is also not about bringing people from abroad, it is about coming to you guys and inspiring you to tell our own stories. To create our work and share with the rest of the world,” he told fellow artistes at the National Theatre in Kampala recently.
Recalling the events when he returned to Uganda to improve the “Biro” script, Ntare, said: “I hired four different people to help me workshop the play and Kaya Kagimu was one of them. I would meet with them for about an hour or two, read them the play and get their feedback from it. I was amused how each person would show me something new in the play. It was from that I was able to fine tune it and eventually chose to premier it from here.”
“There were some people who were saying why you don’t premiere it somewhere in the United States or somewhere else first. But it was uniquely a Ugandan story and I thought it had to premier here first. I even had an agent in the US at the time and the premier was in January of 2003, and in the US, they have something called the pilot season in which they hire a lot of new TV shows and actors. My agent said we really need you to be here (in the US) for the pilot season so you can get a TV show.”
“But I said this is the time I want to premiere the play because it was the National Resistance Movement (NRM) Liberation Day which falls on January 26. So I knew if I premiered the play on the NRM Day, I would probably get the most exposure, most press coverage and maybe get the President (Yoweri Museveni) to come. Luckily by chance, my dad knew somebody who knew him and they came to see some of the rehearsals and from the rehearsals, they went back and told him ‘you need to come and see this. It seems like it is going to be an amazing show.”
“But it started with local actors like yourselves. I came to you guys to ask for your advice, to get your feedback and from that I was able to shape the piece. I premiered it here and my life has never been the same despite the fact that I lost my agent at the time because they did not want me to come to Uganda. They were like ‘why are you going to do this play in Uganda?’ I don’t even think they bothered to read it.”
“So when I finished doing it here. The BBC did a feature of the play and of course that runs internationally. Next thing, I knew I got a call from a theatre in London saying ‘can you send us a script?’ ‘Do you have any footage from the play?’ And when we performed it here, we filmed it from a different angle each night and we added it together and made a documentary of the play. So I sent them some clips from that. And when the BBC did their feature, I used clips from the play to put the audio of the BBC feature on the play. So it looks like a BBC feature although all the footage is all my own creation.”
From there, Ntare says the play went to London and New York. “The next thing I was performing it at the African Union Summit in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia before Kofi Annan and a dozen of African Heads of State. So if anyone says you have to go abroad to do something first, that is not true because this started right here. It started right here with local artists and a local story. I always come back to the National Theatre every time I come home. And when I stand on that stage I give thanks to the National Theatre for changing my life…”
Ntare advises that Ugandan artistes should be creative with the meagre resources they have. “I am always creating, shooting, writing or doing something. I really wanna walk out of here also by inspiring you guys to create your own pieces. Like my piece, there could have been a million ways to do it. You always wish you had more, but often you don’t. And what do they say about creativity? Creativity comes when there is the greatest sense of restriction, when there are limited options. And you have to be creative, right?”
“So I no longer want to hear excuses about I wish I had this, I did not have this camera, I did not have this production value, and I need this whatever. Creativity will force you to find a way to make things work,” he adds.
“When I did Biro here, I was one person on the stage, with no costume changes. I never left the stage for a drink of water, there were only four lights that worked at the time. And we had very limited sound not the kind of sound system you guys have nowadays. So that play went on. You guys have much more than I had at the time I did the play here. You should be able to do more than I did when I was here,” Ntare says.
On drawing inspiration for acting, Ntare says: “That is a great question. I guess acting is a part of storytelling, a part of theatre, a part of film, a part of television. And that is born from or what comes from a page or from writing. So I would say what inspires me are stories. And there are so many stories we have to tell from Uganda and so many characters. You just have to walk from one part of town to another to discover a myriad of tales,” Ntare tells Sunday Monitor.
“As Bob Marley says: “Everyone thinks their burden is the heaviest.” Everyone thinks they have the greatest story and I am sure if you sit down and listen to them, you would hear it. In those stories, there are incredible characters. I am just a creature of human nature and I have always been curious to know what makes people take or make certain choices or what makes a writer a writer and what makes an actor an actor.”
“And so I always try to get inside the skin of each character. Sometimes you have to work outside in, sometimes you work inside out. But it has always been a puzzle for me that I have always been excited to figure how to put it together and how to take it back apart,” he says.
As to how he combines acting, directing and photography, Ntare, says: “One of the ways I do that is by creating new work and short films. I have been writing, directing and acting in my short films for some time now. And I found it to be a great outlet to use all my different artistic muscles. And that is why I was inspired to create ‘This is Uganda’ short film competition. I knew there are other artistes in Uganda, who have multiple talents and I thought this may be the best way to exercise them.”
“So through creating short films, you can do that on your phone. Now with the wonders of Instagram and social media, you can post short films online quite easily and share them around the world,” he adds.
Asked on what he would have been if he was not an actor and photographer, Ntare replys: “I really consider myself an artiste. So if I am not doing acting, photographing, then I am editing a footage that I have worked on or dreaming up new stories that I would like to consider or I would be writing or collaborating with other artistes. So I think at heart, I am an artiste and I would find some sort of creative outlet if I wasn’t acting or taking pictures.”
Ntare’s academically-minded parents were shocked when he informed them he wanted to pursue acting. “My parents were actually initially surprised that I wanted to get a masters degree in acting. Because they were not even aware that you could go to a graduate school for acting, they were a little shocked at it. But my father helped pay my first year fees at school and he was always supportive but remained shocked. Then my second and third years, I had to pay my way through loans,” he recalls.
“My father later came from Uganda to support me when I was going to do the play in Chicago. He also came to see a play I was doing in Washington. My mother has always been supportive when I was doing my play Biro. She was always in the audience and the rehearsal process. They have been my biggest fans actually. So I am truly grateful that my dad is now looking down from above and I consider any blessings that I am getting as a result of his looking down and sharing his gifts with me. Both of my parents have been have been fully supportive of my success,” he adds.
About Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine
Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine was born to a Ugandan immigrant parents in May 1967 in USA. He is a first generation Ugandan-American working in the mediums of photography, theatre, film and television. His photographic work have been exhibited at The United Nations, Rush Arts Gallery, the UCLA Fowler Museum, The Latino Art Museum, and has featured on HBO’s “Six Feet Under.”
Ntare says that although he was born in the US and grew up there for most part of his life, he always comes home to Uganda and leaves feeling a richer person.
“My works are inspired by my life in Uganda and not the USA,” he says.
Ntare is perhaps best known for playing the role of Ronnie in the running American television drama series The Chi, an intimate look at life on the South Side of Chicago following the intertwining lives of its residents. Created by Lena Waithe The Chi premiered on Showtime on January 7, 2018. The third season is set to premiere on June 21, 2020.
His other television TV acting credits include The Knick,Treme, Bosch, and Heroes, among others. He has also appeared in many stage productions.
Ntare plays the led role of Walter in the film Farewell Amor (1hr 35min, 2020) written and directed by the Tanzanian
American filmmaker Ekwa Msangi. Reunited after 17 years, Walter, an Angolan immigrant is joined in the US by his wife and daughter. Now strangers sharing a one-bedroom apartment, they discover a shared love of dance that may help them overcome the distance between them.
Ntare is set to write, direct, and produce a feature-length documentary about the Ugandan studio photographer Aloysius Kibaate Ssalongo. Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh is attached as an executive producer.
He has also appeared in the films Queen of Katwe, Boost, Blood Diamond and 40. His film directing credits include Kuhani which won the main prize for Best Achievement in Directing at the International Kurzfilmtage Winterthur, Switzerland. His inaugural feature length documentary Beware of Time won Best Film on Matters relating to Marginalised People at the 2004 Berlin Black International Cinema Festival.
In 2004, Seed Magazine selected him as one of 18 icons and iconoclasts whose radical ideas are inspiring a vivid dialogue that is deepening our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.
Ntare received the Helen Hayes Awards Outstanding Lead Actor nomination in 1997 for his performance in Nomathemba at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC.
He also received the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) Image Award Outstanding Lead Actor nomination in 1992 for his performance in the USA National Tour of the play Six Degrees of Separation written by John Guare.
Ntare is now based in Los Angeles, US, with his wife Asha Crews Williams and daughter Emanzi Echo Mwine and a son, Macheo Nkuba Coltrane Mwine.
On education, he holds a Masters of Fine Arts in Acting from New York University. He also completed studies at The Moscow Arts Theatre in Russia, The Royal National Theatre in London and
The University of Virginia. He is an Adjunct Professor at the University of Southern California.
He has also taught at Yale University and has lectured theatre and film artists in more than a dozen countries in Africa.