Political Theater

Robert Mugabe and how how quickly style and showmanship can sweep away an audience, even when the underlying message promotes violence and jingoistic triumphalism.

Still from 'Breakfast with Mugabe.'

In 2001, on the eve of national elections, Zimbabwean newspapers reported that Robert Mugabe had turned to a white Zimbabwean psychiatrist to help him cope with recurrent visitations by the ngozi, or malevolent spirit, of one of his former comrades. This news forms the basis for the play, “Breakfast with Mugabe,” on extended run Off-Broadway in New York City. The play delves into the psychological motivations behind Mugabe’s highly controversial land redistribution policies.

The play may overemphasize the way politicians’ personal lives determine their public acts, thereby divesting the land redistribution policies of their deliberate and quasi-socialist underpinnings. Yet the portrait playwright Fraser Grace paints of Mugabe as a man still striving to shake off the colonial yoke twenty years after independence, refreshingly enlivens public dialogue about Zimbabwe’s most (in)famous political figure who has come to stand in the Western news media as an almost parodic symbol of evil.

Still from ‘Breakfast with Mugabe.’

The actor Michael Rogers gave an astonishingly powerful performance the night I was in the audience, and he was especially convincing as a charismatic, if dangerous head of state in a scene near the end that stages a political rally. As his populist rhetoric soars in the small theater, one sees how quickly style and showmanship can sweep away an audience, even when the underlying message promotes violence and jingoistic triumphalism. It takes a convincing actor to show how powerfully persuasive acts of political theater can be.

One of the more surprising suggestions of the play is that it is through his confrontation with his own traumatic past (via psychoanalysis) that Mugabe is able to shake off his anxiety and recognize that the answer, for him, lies in a “Third Chimurenga,” in the form of a new land reform policy, that effectively renders the psychiatrist himself, bereft and haunted by his own ngozi. While psychoanalysis is not often thought of as the master’s tool used to dismantle the master’s house, the more benevolent spirit of Fanon may well approve of this reversal.

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