From the moment we meet Grace Mugabe (Rosalyn Coleman) and hear the complaints she shares with psychiatrist Dr. Andrew Peric (Ezera Barnes) about her husband’s obsessive fears, there is an undercurrent of danger and ominous import in Breakfast With Mugabe, directed by David Shookhoff. According to Grace, Robert Mugabe is hallucinating enemy ghosts and malevolent spirits. Each day he sets a place at the table for one haunting devil in particular and conducts his life and his wife and children’s lives around this paranoia.
We hear in Grace Mugabe’s dark notes of alarm her misery as she tells the story of her husband’s increasingly disturbed mental state. In particular, she refers to the traumatic event in the airport when her husband made a loud scene commanding his bodyguards to stop her and the children from escape, when there was no apparent need to do so. Since then the Zimbabwean President’s wife has been kept prisoner in her own home and cannot go shopping or enjoy the fruits of their position with autonomy, a reality she wishes to end. She begs Dr. Peric to convince her husband to let her leave with the children. She also hopes he will be able to help Robert as best he can since the malady is obviously a dire one that may destroy Mugabe’s political leadership and power regime.
From this too-long exposition scene, the playwright develops the issues which progress to their final resolution. We learn that Dr. Peric, who has been entrusted to help Mugabe, is a member of the once elite class of white farmers who still maintain their farms while many of his social peers are losing theirs to Mugabe’s resettlement plans. Unlike the other former white colonials, Peric has embraced Mugabe’s leadership, has an interracial marriage, and has been a tremendous help to patients at the hospital in Harare. There, the doctor has a sterling reputation because he is loving and culturally flexible. He uniquely understands the spiritualism of the people of Zimbabwe. If anyone can help Mugabe, it is Dr. Peric, but as he makes clear to Grace Mugabe, the President will have to forgo all of his airs and his will to power. He will have to submit to Dr. Peric’s will during the treatment. Thus the playwright introduces the conflict between Dr. Peric and Robert Mugabe as psychiatric patient.
The second problem we assess from Grace Mugabe’s discussion is this: Obviously, Mugabe has lost his hold on reality, though his hallucinations and paranoia are probably grounded in reality. Apparently, Mugabe’s power structure and leadership are beset on all sides by those who want to overthrow his government and replace it with their own factions. In this underlying atmosphere he most likely fears everyone and knows his enemies are seeking revenge for the blood of those he is responsible for having killed. His country has known war in its struggle for independence. His separate power struggle to maintain his despotic rule under the guise of equality and fair elections has also resulted in bloodshed. He can trust only his select group and must suppress any recriminations and guilty feelings about having acted stupidly and without diligence. He must play the role of the brilliant and powerful leader. Mugabe is wrestling with Mugabe for power over his own demons generated by his past actions. Unless he thwarts them, they will overtake his future and the country he intends to rule.
Another complication is in the character of Grace Mugabe. She is pompous, manipulative and extremely clever. Either she is Mugabe’s prize or his bête noire. Her pleas to Dr. Peric and her explanation of her husband’s deteriorating mental state give us the impression that she completely trusts that Dr. Peric has the upper hand and will eventually be the catalyst to help her escape. Her situation is tenuous. Mugabe’s mental decline is impacting his ability to lead and maintain his political power over threatening rivals.
Grace Mugabe is looking out for her husband, but especially, she is looking out for number one. Even if she intends to remain on top as the President’s wife and adviser, her husband will drag her into the abyss, as long as he the dinner plate sits on the table for his chief spirit enemy so Robert can have conversations with him. This is not a leader. Grace doesn’t want to be around for the overthrow. She will escape preferably with Dr. Peric’s help and plenty of money to live abroad. Despite her husband’s attempts to hold on to her and reality, the wolves are circling and closing in.
The playwright has thus established the conflicts in the first scene. When he finally introduces Robert Mugabe (Michael Rogers) after the immense build-up, we are surprised to discover that this may not be the man Grace Mugabe has described so acutely. He is humorous and insightful, and has a penetrating mind and confident spirit. Either Mugabe is “fronting” or Grace has misrepresented her husband’s condition for her own ends. We remain intrigued as the ominous undercurrents swirling around the question of truth and the integrity of each of the characters gradually come to light.
Playwright Fraser Grace uses Dr. Peric’s questioning of Mugabe’s past traumas to create dramatic momentum. As we gradually wend our way through the dense thicket of defense mechanisms Mugabe displays to cover up death and loss, we understand how Mugabe’s self-torture over the past blocks him in the present. Theirs is an interesting “tug of war.” The sense of foreboding we felt in the first scene never leaves us, so we feel relieved that Dr. Peric uses tact and truth to scrape away this uncanny, hyper-manipulative and brilliant leader’s tough outer skins until the softer layers are exposed. Lulled by the doctor-patient interplay, we may be misled and not readily recognize how the playwright cleverly diminishes the doctor’s personal presence while brightening Mugabe’s as he becomes unburdened.
Finally, the doctor arrives at the healing revelation Mugabe seeks. The outcome is counter to what Dr. Peric expects and what Grace Mugabe desires. Ultimately, the doctor has enabled Mugabe to find his own solution to exorcizing the spirits, freeing himself, strengthening his leadership and deepening his power regime. Dr. Peric has been invaluable, but Mugabe feels no compunction to accommodate him while he guides the country’s toward a new horizon. Grace Mugabe, always the survivor, rides her husband’s wave to the shores of success, no longer desiring to flee. And we, like Dr. Peric, are rattled at their ungenerous callousness as the ominous foreboding we’ve felt all along hits us with its harsh realities.
The play is cerebral, intricate, surprising, foreboding, powerful. I loved it. I thought that of all the actors, Rosalyn Coleman’s performance as Grace Mugabe was the most layered and complex. Ezra Barnes’ and Michael Rogers’ interchange of waxing and waning personas and presence was subtle and enlightening. Together with an excellent Che Ayende as the imperious aide Gabriel, the cast brings us carefully to the stark finish. David Shookhoff has aptly directed his ensemble to present an amazing portrait of this determined and cagey leader who, despite all odds, including avenging spirits, has kept himself in power using any means necessary.
Breakfast With Mugabe will be playing at the Pershing Square Signature Center until October 6, 2013.