An intimate power struggle between Robert Mugabe, the President of Zimbabwe, and Dr. Andrew Peric, a white Zimbabwean psychiatrist, is the compelling concept of this gripping, finely acted drama. British author Fraser Grace based his riveting play, first produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2005 and then off-Broadway in 2013, on news reports that a white psychiatrist had been called to treat a severely depressed President Mugabe, to cure him of being haunted by the malicious spirit of a rival who died under dubious circumstances. Set right before the 2002 Zimbabwean elections, the tense sessions between the two men illumes the racial, political, historical and emotional divide between blacks and the white landowners in Zimbabwe and, for that matter, all of formerly colonial Africa.
Mugabe first rose to prominence in the 1960s during the conflict against the conservative white minority government of what was then called Rhodesia. Aside from an 11-year prison term, he has been in power ever since, including his re-election in 2013. Zimbabwe is now considered one of the most corrupt nations in the world, and its economy is near collapse. An internationally controversial figure, the 90-year old Mugabe is part guerilla fighter and revolutionary hero as well as part savage dictator and genocide instigator. His second wife, Grace (known as “Gucci Grace” for her extravagance) is currently presumed to be his successor.
From the moment the uneasy and ultimately beleaguered Dr. Peric meets President Mugabe, the two wrestle for control of the therapeutic process. Mugabe is late and insists that Peric change his tie to one of a selection he is offered. We can see that the tightly-controlled Mugabe can’t help but nervously clench and unclench his fists. His wife, who has her own agenda for the therapy, describes Mugabe’s strange behavior of passing his food to the spirit (known as a “ngozi”) that only he can see. Peric, who is a third-generation landowner in Zimbabwe, prides himself on his devotion to, and acceptance by, his community of black psychiatric patients, to the detriment of the woman in his life, a black nurse who lives on his tobacco farm hours away from his psychiatric institute. And although Grace Mugabe suggests she can protect Peric’s farm from the War Vets (a group who, with Mugabe’s backing, seizes land owned by white Zimbabweans), Peric believes the offer to be unseemly. And perhaps, as a law-abiding Zimbabwean who loves his country, naïvely, can’t imagine himself as a target.
The gifted cast of Bay Area actors is led by L. Peter Callender as Mugabe (“The Soldier’s Tale,” “Permanent Collection”) who is brilliant in his role. Dan Hiatt (“Wittenberg,” “The Arsonists”) gives a sensitive, nuanced performance as Peric. Leontyne Mbele-Mbong (African-American Shakespeare Company) shines as Grace Mugabe, and Adrian Roberts (TheatreWorks, California Shakespeare Theater) portrays well the stony-countenanced Gabriel, Mugabe’s security officer. With its perceptive direction by Jon Tracy (“Gidion’s Knot,” “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity”), this production is perfect for the intimate Aurora Theatre setting.
“Breakfast with Mugabe” is a finely wrought exploration of the dynamics of every therapist/patient relationship multiplied by the unrestrained power of a dictator, but one whose guilt is also exponential. At the play’s heights, L. Peter Callender’s performance reaches toward those of Shakespeare’s tragic kings, but I would have loved a soliloquy that would have delved more deeply into Mugabe’s psyche. Forgetting the drama’s brief moments of overwriting, I left the theater in the midst of excited conversation and questions — surely emblematic of a thought-provoking theatrical experience.
Emily S. Mendel
©Emily S. Mendel 2014. All Rights Reserved
(This review was originally published on berkleyside.com.)