Breakfast with Mugabe by Fraser Grace, directed by David Shookhoff, plays from August 7 to October 6 at the Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theater, Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, New York.
One night around Christmastime in 1979, a few days after the signing of the agreement that gave Zimbabwe its independence, the guerrilla leader Josiah Tongogara died in a car crash in Mozambique. The details of the accident — if it was an accident — have never been resolved.
Described as tall, bearded, and charismatic, Tongogara favored power-sharing between the victorious ZANU party and its rival ZAPU. He had been a moderating force at the Lancaster House talks in England, and many expected him to become the first president of a free Zimbabwe.
If Tongogara had lived, would the bloody suppression of Joshua Nkomo’s ZAPU party and the Ndebele people have occurred? Would every election have been marked by the intimidation of ZANU Youth League thugs? Would the economy have been decimated and the currency rendered worthless? Would journalists have been tortured and expelled from the country? It is impossible to say.
In 2000, after twenty years of one-man, one-party rule, Mugabe’s ZANU party faced a serious electoral challenge from the Movement for Democratic Change. Two of Mugabe’s more bloodthirsty henchmen, Border Gezi and Moven Mahachi, were killed in car accidents. As if these deaths had been a warning from beyond the grave, Mugabe began to be haunted by a vengeful spirit or ngozi — the ghost of Josiah Tongogara.
Mugabe responded with two seemingly opposed actions. He set a place for Tongogara each night at dinner, and he began seeing a Romanian psychiatrist named Vlad Rankovic.
News reports of these events gave the British playwright Fraser Grace the idea for Breakfast with Mugabe, a taut, intelligent four-person play first produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2005. Robert Mugabe, his second wife Grace, his bodyguard Gabriel, and his psychiatrist Andrew Peric spar and circle each other, struggling for advantage under a chandelier in Government House.
As played by Ezra Barnes, Dr. Peric is a tall white man, almost excessively polite, and at first he seems no match for the man he is about to meet. In fact, he seems no match for Grace Mugabe (Rosalyn Coleman), Mugabe’s former secretary, who bore him two children even before his first wife died. She taunts him with her lavish lifestyle, suggesting he really should travel to the exotic spots in Asia that she so enjoys.
But the doctor is no pushover. He uses his time alone with Mrs. Mugabe to firmly lay out the ground rules for his treatment. He and the president will meet in private, and on a regular schedule. The president will address him as Dr. Peric, and the doctor will address him as Robert. He will do his best to help Mugabe, but he will make no guarantees.
Even before the arrival of Mugabe, the constant glowering presence of his bodyguard Gabriel (played by Che Ayende) establishes an atmosphere of menace. Gabriel is more than an ordinary bodyguard, we quickly sense, and the name Gabriel, Mugabe’s own middle name, hints that he is a potentially violent extension of his boss.
Mugabe himself is played by Michael Rogers, a Trinidad-born actor who once appeared with Harrison Ford in The Mosquito Coast. His physical resemblance to Mugabe is slight: he wears a mustache, though not the pencil-thin vertical mustache of Mugabe himself, and he signals his character’s age with gray hair, though Mugabe’s own thinning hair has remained as black as Ronald Reagan’s. But in speech and action he embodies a man of great power, intelligence, and nervous tension, a man who knows he needs help but can make himself accept it only with great difficulty.
Mugabe’s therapy proceeds fitfully, the president’s resistance expressing itself in mysterious absences, sudden summons, and fits of pique. The doctor questions him about his childhood and his years in prison without shaking Mugabe’s self-control. It is only when he asks about the death of Mugabe’s three-year-old son from malaria and the refusal of the white Prime Minister to allow him to attend the funeral, that the president shows his grief and vulnerability. As if recognizing that he has been helped in spite of himself, he offers the doctor a favor that is unwisely refused.
Breakfast with Mugabe shows an impressive command of Zimbabwe’s politics and its climate of fear. Still, there are slips that old Zimbabwe hands will notice. The actors sometimes speak passages of Shona with more confidence than accuracy. (Note: In the phrase Fambai zvakanaka or “go well,” zvakanaka is stressed on the third syllable.) More significantly, when Mugabe reveals that he is haunted by the ghost of Tongogara, Dr. Peric appears not to have heard of him — something that is hardly credible. It may be that the doctor is holding back in order to hear how Mugabe will describe Tongogara, but as the role of the doctor unfolds it doesn’t quite seem to be the reason.
The playwright’s decision to make the psychiatrist a white Zimbabwean rather than a foreigner was a canny one, complicating the play in interesting ways. Whites in Zimbabwe make up less than one percent of the population, and react to their micro-minority status in one of two ways: by retreating to their country clubs and heavily guarded homes, or throwing themselves into African politics and culture. The first type of white person can hardly be bothered to pronounce an African’s name correctly. The second may know all about him.
Dr. Peric, the son of a farmer, is the third generation of his family to live in the former Rhodesia. Though the doctor practices in Harare he has his roots in the countryside, like most Zimbabweans. He is far from fluent in Shona, but when nettled he remarks that he understands more than the others give him credit for. He even has an African wife. But as much as he knows about his country and the man who rules it, this dark and suspenseful play makes clear that it is not enough.
Geoff Wisner is the editor of African Lives: An Anthology of Memoirs and Autobiographies and author of A Basket of Leaves: 99 Books That Capture the Spirit of Africa. He writes for the Christian Science Monitor, The Quarterly Conversation, and Words Without Borders and blogs at geoffwisner.com