You don’t need to be well versed in the politics or history of Zimbabwe to be electrified by “Breakfast with Mugabe” by Fraser Grace, which is running through March 2 at The Lion Theatre at Theatre Row in Manhattan.
Robert G. Mugabe has been president of Zimbabwe since 1987 and won his seventh term in office last year. His seizing of the land of long time British residents in 2000 and his ongoing opposition to any evidence of homosexuality in his country (he likens gays to “dogs and pigs”) have made him controversial, to say the least, outside Zimbabwe’s borders.
Grace takes us back to October, 2001, when Mugabe’s increasingly irrational behavior led his second wife, Grace, to bring in a psychiatrist to talk with her husband.
“Breakfast with Mugabe” shows us a few of these sessions with Andrew Peric in which Mugabe’s disorientation is as evident as his refusal to recognize any weaknesses in himself.
The four character play features an epic-sized performance by Michael Rogers as Mugabe, and fine supporting work by Ezra Barnes as the white psychiatrist, Rosalyn Coleman as Mugabe’s wife, and Che Ayende as the sinister aide de camp/bodyguard Gabriel.
The play invites comparisons with the Kevin Macdonald film “The Last King of Scotland” in its portrait of a nervous white colonial subject in the presence of an African dictator, and the Alan Bennett play “The Madness of George III” in the examination of the uncontained anxiety caused by a ruler who might be losing his grip on reality.
The play is tight — a little more than 90 minutes without an intermission — but Grace makes every minute count.
Rogers is both terrifying and hilarious as Mugabe (he flashes a killer smile from time to time).
Like poor Andrew, we wonder if Mugabe’s behavior is the result of impending mental illness or just an extended test of power. A psychiatrist who is used to being in charge of his sessions with patients is completely flumoxed by this reversal of control.
The play shows us that one of the problems of being the supreme power in any community or political structure is the inability to relate to anyone in a natural way. (I had a brief vision of that Watergate era report of Richard Nixon asking a confused Henry Kissinger to pray with him.)