Despot and doctor clash at Aurora Theatre
A play in which a brutal dictator is stalked by the ghost of a former political ally. It sounds like Macbeth, but in the case of Aurora Theatre’s second offering of its 2014-15 season, the play is about man who, at age 90, has been the president of Zimbabwe for 28 years, ever since he helped free the African nation, formerly Rhodesia, from British colonial rule. He’s Robert Mugabe, beloved, hated, a freedom fighter who was imprisoned for eleven years for his actions, an unprincipled tyrant who had hundreds of political opponents murdered.
In fact it’s one of those opponents, Josiah Tongogara, who haunts Mugabe in the form of what Mugabe’s tribe, the Shonas, call a ngozi. Far more dire than a mere apparition, a ngozi is very bad news. It prompts President Mugabe to mistreat his wife, Grace, and their children, so she’s pleased in her haughty way when her capricious hubby decides to take action against this affliction.
And what action does he take? He hires a white psychiatrist.
The irony is enormous; it colors every moment of Fraser Grace’s Breakfast with Mugabe, which is itself an ironic title, since no moment between its two central characters is served sunny side up. The impetus for the writer’s taut fictional invention came from a rumor, printed in a newspaper, that Mugabe had hired a white psychiatrist to help rid him of a malevolent spirit. Was the story true? Is Shakespeare’s Macbeth “true” to what really happened long ago in Scotland? Art isn’t reportage, so, intrigued, Grace let the rumor spark his imagination. His play is a philosophical “What-if?”
His invented psychiatrist is named Andrew Peric, a native of Zimbabwe as were his parents, when the country was Rhodesia. He’s a reasonable, decent man, but he’s in over his head with the volatile Mugabe, with his quietly threatening wife, and with Mugabe’s beefy bodyguard, Gabriel, who is capable of swift acts of violence. Peric’s position is complicated by his owning a farm that, in the lead-up to the nation’s 2002 elections, is under threat from Mugabe’s roaming thugs, so he has more than one reason to humor a man who has little sense of humor, especially when anyone gets too close to the truth about his family and his past.
Smartly directed by Jon Tracy, this Aurora Theatre production features fine work by Nina Ball who designed the elegant white set, and from Callie Floor (costumes), Heather Basarab (lighting) and Hannah Birch Carl (sound), and from Micha Stieglitz, who periodically floods the walls with edgy projections that suggest Zimbabwe’s turbulence.
The actors are admirable, especially Bay Area veterans Dan Hiatt as the rat-in-a-trap Dr. Peric, and deep-voiced L. Peter Callender, who creates a complex, vulnerable-yet-commanding Mugabe. Leontyne Mbele-Mbong is striking as the threateningly elegant Grace Mugabe, and Adrian Roberts is ominously contained until he lashes out at the end of the play.
I wasn’t consistently gripped by Breakfast with Mugabe, and some of its issues were murky–I was unclear what was at stake at times. But this unusual drama is provocative and handsomely produced. It plays on Addison Street until December 7th. Nicky Silver’s The Lyons opens in January, followed by a Lanford Wilson trilogy. For tickets/information call 843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org.