How Robert Mugabe, president of Zimbabwe, went from idealistic revolutionary to ruthless despot is only one aspect of British playwright Fraser Grace’s fascinating, 2005 “Breakfast with Mugabe.”
Much more than a character study, the drama – with its freighted and often electrifying dialogue, historically broad-ranging perspective and theatrical imagination – proves intense and engrossing.
That’s due as much to Grace’s writing as to Jon Tracy’s excellent direction and cast at Aurora Theatre Company’s West Coast premiere.
In the early 21st century, as Mugabe was campaigning for an election that would once again assure him of what appears to be presidency-for-life, he was said to be depressed and to have sought the counsel of a white psychiatrist.
In Grace’s scenario, Mugabe (played with uncanny precision by a steely-eyed, charming and frighteningly convincing L. Peter Callender) says he is haunted by a malevolent ngozi, or spirit, of a revolutionary comrade and possible political rival (who in fact Mugabe may have murdered; the man was reported to have died in a car crash in 1979).
In Mugabe’s Shona culture, an ngozi must be appeased. Mugabe and his wife (an imperious, assured Leontyne Mbele-Mbong) tell the doctor that when the president is afflicted by the spirit of a dead person, then so is the entire nation.
But the doctor (Dan Hiatt, in a fascinatingly complex portrayal) is more interested in digging into Mugabe’s familial past, a taboo subject. The only aspect of the past that Mugabe wants to discuss is the late-20th-century revolution, in which he played such a heroic part and which eventually reclaimed Rhodesia from the white minority.
It is believed that Mugabe, in his rise, brutally disposed of human “rubbish.” No one knows how many were murdered.
Against this backdrop, the power struggle between the two men, which starts from the minute they meet, plays out across the racial divide on multiple levels that include the personal, the cultural, the spiritual and the political.
One plot-turning element involves Mugabe’s governmental decree to seize land belonging to white farmers. The doctor owns a tobacco farm.
A stoic security guard from the central intelligence organization (a hyper-focused Adrian Roberts) watches intently over the proceedings.
All production elements — Nina Ball’s elegant, white-on-white set, Callie Floor’s beautifully rendered costumes, plus judicious use of archival video footage (Micah Stieglitz) and sound collage (Hannah Birch Carl) — serve to intensify the central conflict in this deeply involving, and disturbing, play.
Breakfast with Mugabe
Presented by Aurora Theatre Company
Where: 2081 Addison St., Berkeley
When:Tuesdays-Sundays; closes Dec. 7
Tickets: $32 to $50
Contact: (510) 843-4822, www.auroratheatre.org