THERE ARE MANY WAYS to tell the story of modern Zimbabwe. The current production of Breakfast with Mugabe at the Pershing Square Signature Center in New York is, of course, only one. By taking as its starting point a fictionalized account of a series of meetings in 2001 between Robert Mugabe, liberation hero and de-facto president-for-life of this former British colony, and a white psychiatrist, Breakfast could initially appear to be little more than a means to let an informed and compassionate Western protagonist (and presumably therefore stand-in for the audience) pass judgment on a brutal and paranoid African leader.
The play, however, eschews such fish-in-a-barrel simplicity and surprises and engages the audience as it carefully develops and explores the motivations and fears of all the characters.
The center of the storm is, unsurprisingly, Michael Rogers’s Mugabe. Born and raised in Trinidad and Tobago, Rogers brings both a sense of immense power and volatile menace to Mugabe, while at the same time always avoiding any descent, even momentarily, into the hackneyed role of simple villain. The overlapping tensions within Mugabe are well displayed, and while never being sympathetic, the President’s intense belief in what he sees as the correct path for the country he liberated drives the play forward.
It is important to recall that at the time of the former Rhodesia’s independence from colonial rule, Mugabe was a figure of widespread admiration, both within his country and around the world. During his first several years in power, Mugabe was regarded as the equal to Nelson Mandela, his neighboring freedom fighter, if not held in slightly higher regard, since he had attained victory for his African countrymen, while success for Mandela and his supporters in South Africa was still some time to come.
Future historians, as well as those viewing Breakfast, will have to reconcile the two different “Robert Mugabes” that we have witnessed over the past 30 years, the revolutionary hero and the tyrant who took a prosperous country and brought it to its knees. Rogers, who followed the liberation struggles in Rhodesia as a boy and visited Zimbabwe in 1998, occupies the role of the mutangamiriri, or father of the nation, fully and with real gravitas. When we first see Mugabe, he is haunted by a ngozi, or ghost, of a departed comrade and is driven to the point of madness. Rogers’s portrayal of a despot literally haunted by his past reveals the nature of Mugabe’s buried conscience, hidden beneath the certainty and self-righteousness so vital to his early successes.
Mugabe is a member of the dominant Shona tribe, and chishona language and culture are diffused throughout the play. With the Shona beliefs that forms the basis for Mugabe’s worldview seemingly unable to dispel the dark cloud raining down bad memories, the doctor Andrew Peric is brought from the psychiatric unit at Harare Central hospital into the State House in Harare to “cure” the President in time to lead his Zanu-PF party to victory in the upcoming elections.
Played with confidence by Ezra Barnes, Peric is forced to confront several difficult questions as he attempts to work with his unique and demanding patient. How do we know that modern medicine gives us any more access to truth than traditional beliefs? Is it actually possible in any meaningful sense to be “post-colonial?”
Peric defines himself very succinctly as “Third generation Zim, second generation farmer, first generation psychiatrist.” However, neither Mugabe nor the other powerful Africans that Peric interacts with at State House allow him to maintain such a simplified view for long, even if they refer to him as cherimba, a respectful term for doctor. Apart from the action occurring on stage, yet very closely related to the themes and fears unfolding among the four characters, is Peric’s beloved Two Trees farm, in the village of Concession, an hour’s drive from the capital. War veterans are encamped at the gates, and the future of the 500 hectares of prime agricultural land in far from clear. Peric has to ask: how can we determine to everyone’s satisfaction exactly who a piece of land, or a country, actually belongs to?
At its heart, Breakfast is about the great wheel of time that rotates through the lives of all of us. Success followed by failure, destitution followed by wealth. The wounds of colonialism in Africa, and by inference slavery in other parts of the world, are deep and go back very far into the lives of those impacted. All in Breakfast have suffered directly from either the pain of colonialization or the pain of de-colonialization, or both.
By demonstrating how each of the characters — including the security officer Gabriel (Che Ayende) and the President’s second wife, Grace Mugabe (Rosalyn Coleman) — are compromised by the past in ways that may not be fully obvious even to them, the play takes the audience into novel territories. In a brief exchange between Peric and Gabriel, the farmer-psychiatrist quizzes the well-dressed Central Intelligence Organization officer about his life in the city and how frequently he returns to his village “upcountry.” By attempting to establish more connection to the land than a black African, Peric fervently seeks to demonstrate as much, if not more, authenticity than Gabriel. Peric’s need for legitimacy is well conveyed by Barnes, and his interactions with Gabriel and Grace give an opportunity for the character of Peric to unfold incrementally.
Even more impressive is Coleman’s portrayal of the hard-willed Grace. Having lived the young girl’s dream of marrying her way into the royal castle and gaining access to privilege and wealth, Grace must now deal with palace intrigue and her own fear that all could be taken away from her in an instant, either by falling out of favor with her powerful husband or being swept from power with him by angry and aggrieved Zimbabweans. Her husband is kupenga, or crazy, and this is putting the First Lady’s world off-balance. Grace is desperate to remain in the life she has eagerly grown accustomed to, while at the same time recognizing that she is, in effect, trapped like a prisoner within State House by the whims and paranoias of her husband.
Rather than indulge in a shallow portrayal of Grace, as no more than one of the “Real Housewives of Harare,” Coleman ably demonstrates again and again the twin problems that Grace faces — she needs to get her husband sane as quickly as possible and she needs him to stay in power to protect both her and the two sons she bore for him. These two goals are by no means aligned with each other and are quite possibly in direct conflict.
Breakfast is ultimately a political play about Africa that occurs in a very intimate setting. The scale of neither the African liberation struggle nor the immense suffering of the Zimbabwean people in recent years fits conveniently into the narrow confines of the Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre. This raises some awkward questions that cannot be fully answered by the time the final curtain falls. Fraser Grace’s play readily brings to mind several other portrayals of psychiatrist and patient, ranging from The Madness of George III to The Sopranos. In that regard, the framing device is highly effective. Although all four characters are in their own ways victims of past events, and all causes of future suffering, the white psychiatrist Peric is the play’s main protagonist, upon whom the dramatic arc of the play depends. Thus the story centers on a white settler’s perceptions and misconceptions about the postcolonial experience, rather than, for example, looking at these events from a black perspective. Nor does the play attempt to come to grips with the more recent violence, oppression, and uncertainty, all of which have escalated in Zimbabwe in the decade after the fictional events portrayed in Breakfast take place, up to and including the disputed results of the most recent election earlier this year that are allowing Mugabe to enjoy yet another presidential term in State House.
The only ready answer to this conundrum is that Breakfast provides powerful insights into the nature of power as it impacts individual lives — both in its presence and absence, and the way we come to the mistaken belief that we are protected from its arbitrary and vicious exercise, when in fact we only always realize far too late that we are indeed not actually protected in any meaningful way, and quite probably never were.