Mugabe, My Dad & Me is a solo show written and performed by Tonderai Munyevu, focusing on his personal story and the career of controversial Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe. The touring UK production is co-produced by English Touring Theatre with Brixton House and York Theatre Royal in association with Alison Holder. It’s directed by John R. Wilkinson and features original music from Millicent Chapanda.
Munyevu’s previous writing credits include The Moors (Tara Arts Theatre), Harare Files: 70,000 People Lost Their Homes (Harare International Festival of the Arts), and Zhe [Noun] Undefined (Soho Theatre, international tour) for the stage; and The Tranquil Minds for the radio. Some of his theatre credits include Black Men Walking (Royal Court Theatre), Treasure Island (Birmingham Rep), and The Man Who Almost Killed Himself (Edinburgh Festival Fringe).
This month, the UK tour will head to Stahl Theatre, Oundle; Oxford Playhouse; and Traverse Theatre. I spoke to Munyevu on Zoom before one of his performances at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, UK. Here are the highlights of our conversation about his approach to writing the play and his experiences during the tour.
When did you start writing the play?
In 2017, when Mugabe was kind of ousted from power. It felt like a real life-changing moment for me in that I wasn’t there. I was concerned that I was going to miss out on this change for Zimbabwe, like [it] was suddenly going to become a magical place and I wouldn’t be there. I was enraged by that.
What was the most challenging aspect of writing this play?
It’s a true story, and I think that’s the most challenging part about it. I’m writing about myself, my family, and my dad. My father has passed away, so it’s not going to affect him, but it definitely would affect my siblings and my mom. There was a feeling about that: how do I tell the story truthfully? I wasn’t worried about myself and what I was exposing, but I was worried about protecting my family.
When you talk about a figure like Mugabe, it’s a big thing because everyone has their opinion of him. Accuracy and having a take on him became of more importance for me. It’s not something I’ve done before. I was really compelled to write this story and speak from the heart.
How did doing the Audible version help you prepare for taking it to the stage?
I don’t know if it did. In terms of the writing, we streamlined it a lot. On audio, you don’t need as much material because the ear can hear so much. That stayed the same when we got back into the theatre. We added some things back in, but it was great to have that simplification and succinctness of the story.
Did you make changes between the 2021 production and the 2022 tour?
When you first create something, you have a certain amount of time for working things out and questioning each other, yourself, and the piece. At some point by week three, you have to stop all of that. You drill into it and get ready for an audience.
The most incredible thing is the growth during the months between 2021 and now. With actors, there’s always a moment where you’re in a Tesco or Waitrose shop a week after you’ve done the show and you go, “Oh, that’s what that moment is!”
Now the brain is relaxed, but it’s still seeing things worth putting into the show. I was lucky, and whenever it happened to me, I wrote those things down. I had time to reflect more about what’s happened to me and the world with the pandemic. I’ve also been writing other pieces. It’s a creative process that illuminates others.
How did you like incorporating Millicent Chapanda’s original music into the story?
For me, it was so male-centric in terms of Mugabe, my father, and myself. I wanted a female presence in it because my life has certainly been shaped more by women: my grandmother, my mother, and my sister. How do I do this? This presence of a woman being on stage.
Then I thought of the mbira. One of the things that came out of being a Diasporan is the idea that some things are really fixed in my mind. In a way, if I had stayed in Zimbabwe, they might not mean so much. The mbira is an instrument that means so much, partly because I left before I understood its history, metaphor, beauty, and power. Wherever I could, I’ve always put it in my work. It felt like an emblem of Zimbabwe. As I thought more about it, the mbira is also land, blood, culture, love, sorrow, grief, and healing.
Millie magically and brilliantly understood what was needed in each moment, and she brought it. She and John worked together on how to punctuate the story with music. She brought her very clear point of view on things while allowing me to tell my story. I remember saying to her, “Well, what do you think about all these things that I am saying?”
Writing about Zimbabwe as a nation, I’m self-conscious about what I got wrong and what I got right. Millie basically said, “Well, it’s your story.”
What feedback did you receive at the talkbacks?
People are moved by it in a way that I did not anticipate. I was compelled to tell the story in a way that was true to me. What’s interesting is that all the things I’ve put in there—that have been so uniquely me—turned out to be quite universal. I’m amazed by the universality to it. Somebody who is Irish might watch it and think about land in Ireland. Somebody who is Polish might watch it and think about the history of Poland. Or an American person or an English person who never thought about land and is now thinking about land. [People] might think about a piece of land to own, to feel comfortable [on], or to feel they are doing okay.
I’ve also been challenged by other people about why this or that isn’t there. It’s my story; again, if we talked about all of it, the show would be three hours at the very least. [laughs] It is inherently limited and subjective in the process. Some people grappled with that.
We invite people at the end of the show to tell their stories, because I can’t tell all the stories. I can only do my version of what happened to me and my family under Mugabe’s leadership.
For the latest information and to purchase tickets, visit the English Touring Theatre website.