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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Breakfast with Mugabe: Reaping the Bitter Fruit of Colonialism

Also see Bob's review of Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie

Breakfast With Mugabe
Ezra Barnes, Che Ayende, Michael Rogers and Roslyn Coleman
Breakfast with Mugabe is a dense, fascinating exploration of the roots and reality of the lingering human and political disaster that is Zimbabwe. English playwright Fraser Grace has personified the tragedy by painting psychological portraits of Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe, and Andrew Peric, a fictional white Zimbabwean psychiatrist. Grace was inspired to write the play after learning that Mugabe was being treated by a psychiatrist.

It is a brutal European colonialism that is the villain of Breakfast with Mugabe. The transition from Rhodesia to Zimbabwe in this area was extended, circuitous and cost a large number of lives as the independent white government held onto as much power as it could for as long as it could. Although the rival native tribes fought to wrest control of governance from the colonial settlers, they also fought deadly battles against one another.

Mugabe has ruled Zimbabwe since 1980, first as Prime Minister and now as President. He cannot sleep at night because he is haunted by a ngozi, an avenging spirit of a dead person who appears in momentous times. Mugabe's ngozi is Josiah Tongogara, a revolutionary leader and rival of Mugabe who was killed in an auto accident just prior to Mugabe's ascension to head of state. Whether or not he was the architect of Tongogara's death as some believe, Mugabe is mercurial, threatening and harbors hostility toward the doctor and his heritage. He also is paranoid and on the edge of madness.

The psychiatrist Peric is the very model of a good Zimbabwean who loves the land. Peric's European antecedents had settled in Rhodesia during the colonial period and converted brush land into farmland. While he toils in the hospital with total dedication to his patients, his native African wife runs their farm. Prominently on hand is Mugabe's second wife, Grace. Forty years younger than Mugabe, the foxy Grace is the trophy wife from hell who threatens and abuses all those with whom she comes into contact. She fears her husband's paranoiac rages and wants Peric to get Mugabe to allow her to leave the capitol, Harare. Also on hand is Gabriel, the young secret service agent who is Mugabe's personal protector.

The time of the play is approximately a decade ago when Mugabe began a murderous campaign which by now has stripped from the white farmers most of the land that they once owned. The United States and the European Union have leveled sanctions against Mugabe who is a pariah to the West. Although, author Fraser Grace gives us Mugabe in all his murderous brutality and madness, Mugabe is not a villain here, nor are the white farmers whom we see in the person of Andrew Peric. In a convincing manner, the play posits that all of the players have been trapped in a mental and physical hell by Zimbabwe's past.

The cast is uniformly excellent in what are very difficult roles. Michael Rogers is quite scary as a menacing all-powerful head of state who teeters between sanity and madness. His performance conveys the conundrum of a man who finds his sanity by unleashing a hatred that leads to calculated actions which an outside observer would likely think to be insane. The only scary thing about the confident, quietly commanding characterization of Andrew Peric by Ezra Barnes is our realization of how misguided he is in his surety of his place and position in Zimbabwe.

Scary is the word of the day here and Rosalyn Coleman is a nightmare harridan. It is chilling to note that Coleman bears a close physical resemblance to photographs of Grace Mugabe herself. You will believe in this performance and wonder who's that sweet, smiling lady pictured in the program next to Coleman's name. You may be interested to know that Grace Mugabe's specialties as first lady are building palaces and assaulting reporters.

It is interesting to observe Che Ayende's secret service man Gabriel goes from marshalling his resources to be as tough (and scary) as he can be to internalizing his toughness. After all, such attitudes and behaviors are learned.

David Shookhoff has directed solid, with a cards on the table style which brings maximum clarity and pace to Fraser Grace's daunting play. The marbled waiting room in which most of the play is set is quite lavish for a black box theatre even before designer Lee Savage cleverly unveils new elements for another location. In order to keep us reminded that the luxe Presidential Palace is not the reality of most Zimbabweans, it is surrounding by mounds of dirt in which appear the detritus of war and poverty.

Mugabe may be both too dense and too obscure in its historical background to gain a wide audience in the States, but it has a penultimate scene which, along with the balance of the play, might attract an actor with the cache to turn it into a mainstream attraction (which is not to say that Michael Rogers extracts anything less than full value from it). I would move it to the end of the play despite the fact that the last scene does bring the play tragically full circle. It is a doozy of a speech delivered to Zimbabwe and the world by Mugabe chastising Great Britain for the hypocrisy of its preachments to him. It would appear to be an actual Mugabe speech, and it is a barn-burner that provides much food for thought.

Dinner with Mugabe was first produced in London in 2005. The only previous U.S. production was in Pittsburgh. It is the first production in the black box "second stage" theatre in the new (Centenary College) Lackland Center home of the Centenary Theatre Company. Artistic Director Carl Wallnau plans to employ the flexible space of his smaller venue to bring edgier, more challenging fare to his Hackettstown redoubt. Wallnau is off to a strong and admirable start with this production of the provocative and thought provoking Dinner with Mugabe.

Dinner with Mugabe continues performances (Thursday 7:30 pm/ Friday and Saturday 8 pm/ Sunday 7:30 pm) through November 21, 2010, at the Centenary Stage Company Kutz Theatre in the Lackland Center on the campus of Centenary College, 400 Jefferson Street, Hackettstown 07840; Box Office:908-979-0900; online: www.centenarystageco.org.

Dinner with Mugabe by Fraser Grace; directed by David Shookhoff
Cast:
Andrew Peric....................Ezra Barnes
Robert Mugabe............Michael Rogers
Grace Mugabe............Roslyn Coleman
Gabriel..............................Che Ayende


Photo: Carl Wallnau


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- Bob Rendell



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