‘Breakfast with Mugabe’ explores themes that aren’t a piece of cake

David Allen/Courtesy

Related Posts

Update 11/27/14: This article has been updated to include the show’s extended dates. 

Breakfast with Mugabe does not always end well — sometimes, he murders your wife. Aurora Theatre Company brings Fraser Grace’s 2005 drama “Breakfast With Mugabe” to Berkeley. The play depicts the aging President Robert Mugabe, a polarizing figure in African politics. Beginning his military and political career as an anti-colonial freedom fighter, Mugabe has clung to power over a bloody, decades-long rule through rigged elections, repression of political opposition and the deaths of thousands of Zimbabweans.

“Breakfast With Mugabe” marks an attempt to understand this duality — on the one hand, one may view Mugabe as the charismatic symbol of colonial resistance, a liberator who spent more than a decade in prison for his country; on the other, though, his brutal regime represses the very people he sought to enfranchise.

The play takes place during the runup to Zimbabwe’s 2002 national elections. Mugabe (L. Peter Callender) has implemented controversial land-redistribution policies in which his military seizes white farms and claims them for the state. By referring to his appropriation of white agricultural properties as the “Third Chimurenga,” Mugabe connects his measures to the previous indigenous “revolutionary struggles,” as the term translates. The first Chimurenga was a guerilla effort against British colonists, and the second emerged against Rhodesian white supremacists who seized power after the British.

In a time of escalating racial tension, newspaper reports emerge that depict a depressed, mentally unstable Mugabe seeking counseling from a white psychiatrist. Rumors swirl, including one in which Mugabe insists he is haunted by the spirit of his dead comrade and the fellow guerilla fighter Josiah Tongogara. Mugabe’s wife Grace (Leontyne Mbele-Mbong) refers to the apparition of Tongogara as “Ngozi,” an angry spirit who Mugabe believes is still outraged by his sudden and suspicious death in a 1979 car crash, just before many expected him to become Zimbabwe’s first prime minister.

Callender’s performance as Mugabe is a stunning achievement. His psychotherapy sessions provide the audience with a glimpse into the deteriorating mind of a man who has not yet reckoned with his lingering hatred and guilt over the events that marked his rise to power. Reflecting shades of both Lear and Chinua Achebe’s Okonkwo, Callender’s Mugabe embodies both the quintessential African “strong man” of anti-colonial literature and the Shakespearean villain corrupted by power and driven mad by grief.

The play references Mugabe’s political imprisonment during the racist Ian Smith regime; his 1963 incarceration lasted more than a decade and prevented him from seeing his firstborn son before the boy died. These, in addition to Tony Blair’s decision to renege on a British promise to buy back land from white planters, sow the seeds of rage that emerge in his sessions with Dr. Peric. The audience witnesses the growing tension that emerges over the course of their conversations as the power struggle between the more politically powerful black patient and the white doctor who insists on addressing him as “Robert” comes to a head.

The staging by Jon Tracy contributes to the personal feel of the performance. While the premise of a play built around a series of therapy sessions is inherently intimate, the effect is heightened by the audience’s seating close to the stage. Exceptional performances by all four cast members create a taught theatrical experience in which an array of conflicting emotions are unloaded on the viewer. The characters seem to rotate between the roles of victim and antagonist, with moments of great humanity followed by violent outbursts of cruelty. With news clips projected on the stage and discordant noises and headlines played during the scene breaks, Tracy’s production choices heighten its emotional resonance.

One of the most poignant moments occurs when Mugabe finds out that his doctor’s wife is black and refers to her bitterly as a “spoil of the conqueror.” The audience witnesses the implosion of a professional working relationship, as the racial tension that propels the show ultimately precipitates its violent ending. While “Breakfast With Mugabe” addresses the leader’s almost unfathomable cruelty, any complete indictment of his behavior is complicated by the inhumanity of the forces that created him. As Grace notes to Dr. Peric during one of her husband’s sessions, “What in Zimbabwe do you think is pure?”

“Breakfast with Mugabe” runs at Aurora Theatre until Dec. 14.

Contact Grace Culhane at [email protected].