The story of “Breakfast with Mugabe” is set in the State House in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, in October 2001 during the months preceding the presidential election of Robert Mugabe, which took place in spring 2002.
Evil is a complicated, double-sided destroyer. One man’s insurgent is another man’s freedom fighter, and so the savage drum beats on and innocent people suffer and die, soaking nations in blood and steeping them in hatred.
The ethical framework that shapes the chilling play “Breakfast with Mugabe,” written by Fraser Grace and directed by David Shookhoff, is difficult to ignore. In the play, Robert Mugabe, the autocratic president of Zimbabwe, is visited by a determined and troubled spirit who wants bloody revenge. The who and why is the subtext of the compelling work.
Inspired by a newspaper report that said a psychiatrist was treating Mugabe, “Breakfast with Mugabe” examines the personal demons that might haunt a man who is thought by some to be the source behind a genocide in his country.
Originally produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon in 2005, “Breakfast with Mugabe” is now playing at the Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theater until Oct. 6.
Zimbabwe’s history is bloody and fierce. There is always a battle being waged in bloody Zimbabwe, and the ones waged in the mind are particularly gruesome. A vengeful spirit with more malice than he can bear terrorizes the African ruler. So desperate is the torment that Mugabe turns to traditional medicine and employs Dr. Andrew Peric (Ezra Barnes), a white Zimbabwean psychiatrist.
The good doctor has no friends to warn him about the snake pit he is about to enter, aka the presidential palace.
His first encounter with bodyguard Gabriel (Che Ayende), who lacks any emotional generosity, ushers in the cool, calculated presence of Grace Mugabe (Rosalyn Coleman), the president’s considerably younger and striking second wife.
Grace is desperate to be allowed to leave the palace with their children, and she bends the naïve Peric to her will.
She vividly describes her husband’s terrifying visitations by a ngozi—a malevolent spirit only he can see. Such a spirit redefines ruthlessness. Such a spirit will not cease unless it is generously appeased.
The electric charge in the air announces the arrival of Mugabe (Michael Rogers), who immediately asserts his authority, using a simple necktie to make the point.
The sessions are rocky, at best, but the playwright does a masterful job in pointing out details about the culture and the importance of ancestral spirits.
The bloody, bitter history between Zimbabwe’s native people and the white colonists (who once dominated the country) seems to have no end.
The poor doctor is like an unsuspecting fly in front of a family of hungry spiders. The fact that he owns a huge farm that has been in his family for several generations figures into the taut drama.
The ngozi is present in the six scenes that comprise this fascinating play, and it’s revealed that it is the spirit of a former comrade and potential political rival who died under violent and mysterious circumstances.
Did the president arrange the murder? Did he break the trust of his first wife, the “mother of the nation, the selfless giver of hope”? Et tu, Brute?
The attempts to determine the significance of the ghoulish apparition culminate in a psychological breakthrough that ultimately leads to disastrous consequences for Peric.
Shookhoff assembled such a highly skilled cast that seems to take the audience to Zimbabwe to meet the genuine article. All of the actors are brilliant and fluid and understand the importance of their craft.
As the president, Rogers is as terrifying as Jack Nicholson in “The Shining” without ever having to raise his voice. Rogers is a graduate of the Yale School of Drama, an institution that has trained some of the finest thespians in the world. He exceeded my high expectations.
As Mugabe’s wife, Coleman delivers a measured performance that brings to mind both Cicely Tyson and Meryl Streep. She dissolves into the skin of the character. Barnes’ Dr. Peric is solid, and Ayende portrays the curious bodyguard with an elegant style; the man doesn’t break a sweat. Sweet!
A drama well worth a trip to the theater, “Breakfast with Mugabe” is stylistically modern and yet still old school. The show’s examination of the country’s complicated history and those who wield power encourages reflection and dialogue.
The play is 90 minutes without intermission. “Breakfast with Mugabe” is now running at the Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theater at Pershing Square Signature Center (480 W. 42nd St. between Ninth and 10th avenues). For tickets, call 212-279-4200. For group sales, call 212-265-8500.