The off-Broadway play Breakfast With Mugabe presents audiences with a thorny portrayal of one of Africa’s oldest and longest-serving president.
Directed by David Shookhoff, the 90-minute story follows an afflicted Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe as he receives private treatment for severe depression from an acclaimed white psychiatrist, Andrew Pedric.
Trinidadian-born and American-raised, actor Michael Rogers initially avoided the script when producer and fellow actor Ezra Barnes, who plays Dr. Pedric, suggested it to him for the title role.
“This here’s something I’ve known about ever since I was a little boy and I didn’t believe anyone would write an honest play about Robert Mugabe,” he told BET.com before a recent evening show at The Pershing Square Signature Center in New York City.
“Eventually, I read it — cut a long story short — and found it fascinating. I was amazed that a white man wrote such a play.”
Moments of hilarious absurdity, profound tension and ominous dread blend seamlessly throughout Breakfast With Mugabe, shading a rich, complex image of a Mugabe often made monochromatic in the Western media.
What Rogers lacks in physical similarities with the vilified, historical figure, he compensates for with a striking performance that demonstrates Mugabe’s uncompromising leadership and the callous actions that stemmed from his calculating mindset.
Rosalyn Coleman’s turn as Grace Mugabe, the leader’s second and much younger wife, buoys up the weighty plot with delicious mischief and an impeccable flair of haughtiness that commands a majority of the otherwise unadorned dialogue.
Dubbed "Gucci Grace" and "The First Shopper" in real life, Grace's lavish lifestyle is poked at, yet a lucid comprehension of power, money and manipulation deceive the dutiful wife role that she dons whenever her husband comes within earshot.
Bouncing between the two is the Zimbabwean born and raised Dr. Pedric, whose unwitting appearance soon falls to the wayside, as do his seemingly altruistic intentions to help his influential patient.
"Mrs. Mugabe, Grace, I am here, purely in a professional capacity," said Dr. Pedric in an early scene.
Snapping back at the doctor with a chuckle, the first lady replied, "And what in Zimbabwe do you think is pure?"
Between the haunting of a ghost — an ngozi, in Shona culture — and the powerful, yet mostly silent presence of Mugabe’s ever hovering bodyguard Gabrie, played by Che Ayende, Breakfast With Mugabe shines most between the lines.
Each character’s actions and words contrast their motives, offering no easy solution, as the show's playwright, Fraser Grace, admits.
An unsettling notion that the play’s ending underscores, further graying a history typically delineated in evident blacks and whites.
“Let's just say it's pretty shocking and often leaves people feeling stunned and disturbed. The situation in Zimbabwe under the present regime is far from easy, and the play offers no easy solution,” Grace said.
“What's important is to engage with the play, and go away thinking about what it might teach us about [Robert Mugabe], Zimbabwe and the legacies of empire in Africa and throughout the world."
Breakfast With Mugabe is now playing at The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theater at The Pershing Signature Center in New York, New York.
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(Photo: Joseph Henry Ritter)