Sunday, January 26, 2014

Review of "Breakfast with Mugabe" - Off-Broadway

The premise for the Off-Broadway play, Breakfast with Mugabe, is newspaper accounts of the Zimbabwe President, depressed and haunted by a ngozi (malevolent spirit) of a fallen comrade, seeking help from a white psychiatrist.  Playwright Fraser Grace has utilized these unconfirmed reports to form the basis for the show, an intense drama set just before the Spring 2002 Presidential elections, that seeks to illuminate the political, cultural, and historical struggle of black Zimbabweans with the minority white landowners of the country.

To most Americans Robert Mugabe is viewed as a controlling and ruthless leader who has had an iron-clad grip on his nation for decades.  But what of his back story?  What are the chronicled events that have shaped his perspective and vision as well as that of his country?  Breakfast with Mugabe explores these questions through the head of state’s interaction with the psychiatrist.  Invited to the presidential palace to treat the elder leader he must also contend with the demands and pleas of his young wife, a plotting and calculating woman as well as be wary of the inscrutable intelligence officer, always nearby and listening.

The sessions of the two central protagonists, while occasionally too talkative, nonetheless are powerful, impassioned, and sometimes frightening.  Their exchanges are more like predator and prey circling one another, warily awaiting for the other to strike.  But throughout their give and take the question arises--who is the predator and who is the prey?  By the end of the 100 minute, intermissionless production the assured, but politically na├»ve doctor’s life is in shambles as Mugabe, reenergized and full of swagger reasserts his influence and authority across the land.

Fraser Grace has forged an impressive story that, more then not, successfully presents a sizeable swath of issues that crystallize the major racial, economic, and political conflicts in the African nation.  He slowly builds the emotion and forcefulness of the show to a powerful and painful conclusion. 

Since many theater-goers may not be familiar with the African words and historical references cited in the production the program includes a glossary, chronological timeline, and a very brief listing of major players from Mugabe’s past.

The actors are all outstanding, with the main kudos going to Ezra Barnes as the independently minded, principled psychiatrist, Andrew Peric; and Michael Rogers as the intimidating and stoic Robert Mugabe.  They add a realistic edge to their performances that both engage and fascinate.  Rosalyn Coleman as Grace, the very young second wife of the Zimbabwe President, initially comes off as a shallow and self-serving afterthought until you realize there is a shrewd cunning to her make-up.  Coleman endows the first lady with enough shading and contradictions to bamboozle even the most observant political spectator.  Che Ayende, as the solitary sentry, Gabriel, is depicted, at first, as simple window dressing until you eventually realize there is more to his silent disposition then is displayed on stage.  Ayende, endows his character with a sympathetic, all-knowing, and menacing presence especially towards the end of the production when you are graphically confronted with the consequences of dallying with the intelligence arm of an authoritarian ruler.

Director David Shookhoff has shaped a taut, well-executed production.  On the small stage the emotion and tension generated by the actors and plot can be unnerving.  As mentioned previously, the play’s momentum can be weighed down by a sometimes overly wordy script, but Shookhoff still manages to slowly ratchet up the ferment gestating within the show.
Breakfast with Mugabe, a thought-provoking, powerful drama at The Lion Theatre through March 2nd.

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