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How Black Theatre Troupe Is Elucidating American Politics Through Theater

Duane Daniels (left) and Mike Traylor from the cast of Black Theatre Troupe's Breakfast With Mugabe.EXPAND
Duane Daniels (left) and Mike Traylor from the cast of Black Theatre Troupe's Breakfast With Mugabe.
Laura Durant

When Donald Trump speaks, some hear echoes of dictators past or present. Maybe reading history isn’t your thing, but there are other ways to explore the proposition, including an intriguing play being performed by Black Theatre Troupe in Phoenix.

Breakfast With Mugabe imagines meetings between Robert Mugabe, a longtime political leader in Zimbabwe, and a doctor called in to help calm his distress. It’s a fictional work inspired by news accounts of Mugabe seeing a white psychiatrist. And it’s especially resonant in light of contemporary American politics, where speculation about Trump’s mental state abounds.

David Hemphill, who heads the theater company, chose the play long before the world learned of Mugabe’s death in early September. Like many others, he listened to coverage of the controversial leader’s policies and influence in the days following Mugabe’s death. And he heard the mixed bag of memories.

Mugabe is hailed by many for pushing back against British colonialism, but also criticized for oppressing his own people. From 1980 until his death, he was a central figure in Zimbabwe’s political life. He died at 95, two years after the coup that ended his presidency.

His turbulent rule is perfect fodder for theatricality. Even so, British playwright Fraser Grace delivers a taut, measured play that slowly unwinds to reveal the ways power shifts within relationships and societies.

Black Theatre Troupe performs the 90-minute play, set entirely inside a single room of the State House in Zimbabwe’s capital, in a single act. The tilted white outline of a square hovers over the stage, conveying the ways each character is boxed in by personal and societal histories and expectations.

“Mugabe is trapped in his own mind,” Hemphill says. “He was a narcissistic, egotistical man who bordered on being a sociopath.” It’s a description sometimes used today by those who criticize Trump’s authoritarian tendencies.

The play is directed by Louis Farber, the associate artistic director for Stray Cat Theatre. He likens Mugabe to a classic anti-hero, akin to Shakespeare’s Macbeth or Richard II. The play was first produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company.

The small cast portrays just four characters. Mike Traylor plays Mugabe, a character that prompts reflection on the ways even well-intentioned politicians can devolve into corrupt leaders if given too much power. “It’s historical, but it’s current events at the same time,” says Traylor.

Duane Daniels plays psychiatrist Andrew Peric, a man he describes as principled but naive. “He thinks he’s going to be able to come out of this unscathed,” Daniels says of his character. “He has an impact on Mugabe, but it’s not the one he expects.”

Ryan Jenkins and Jordan-Kerry Mitchell round out the cast in roles that punctuate the complexity of power dynamics. Jenkins plays Mugabe’s wife and Mitchell their bodyguard. Both characters prompt consideration of choices and their consequences.

Throughout the play, audiences see the ways race, gender, and social status impact everyday encounters and historical events. As the plot unfolds, it’s fascinating to consider the many ways these characters seek to exert control, with varying degrees of success or failure.

Ultimately, Breakfast with Mugabe highlights the ways outcomes are often determined by the rules of engagement, and who has the power to set or break them.

“I hope the play will get people talking about race and power,” Farber says, “especially given today’s political climate.”

Breakfast With Mugabe continues through Sunday, November 10, at Black Theatre Troupe's Helen K. Mason Performing Arts Center. Tickets are $41. Visit blacktheatretroupe.org.

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