Political Theater: ‘Breakfast with Mugabe’

“Breakfast with Mugabe,” on extended run Off-Broadway in New York City, is set in Zimbabwe in 2001, on the eve of national elections. Based on newspaper reports of the time that alleged 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, 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.

Michael Rogers (in the image above) 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.

Further Reading

No more caricatures

Engaging seriously with Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s life could help us understand how South Africa got where it is and where it’s going.