If you knew the late revolutionary hero turned brutal dictator Robert Mugabe, having breakfast with him might not seem all that appealing.

Breaking bread with tyrants never is.

On the other hand, watching Black Theatre Troupe take on the 100-minute tour-de-force, “Breakfast With Mugabe” by Fraser Grace, might just hit the spot.

Duane Daniels and Mike Traylor. Photo by Laura Durant, courtesy Black Theatre Troupe.

Duane Daniels and Mike Traylor. Photo by Laura Durant, courtesy Black Theatre Troupe.

At the risk of being morbid, Mugabe’s untimely death in early September offers BTT a timely if chance opportunity to stage the award-winning drama. The play premiered at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2005, while Mugabe was still in power, and has drawn critical acclaim ever since.

Louis Farber directs BTT’s production. In a recent interview, Farber conceded he wasn’t that familiar with Mugabe before signing on for the show. But a wave of recent news coverage about the strongman’s death last month delivered plenty of food for thought about Mugabe’s story and his historical significance.

Consider this telling headline in The Independent: “Robert Mugabe: Zimbabwe’s ex-leader remembered as both ‘liberation icon’ and ‘dictator’, as legacy divides opinion.”

Like that headline, the play explores Mugabe’s complex legacy. Was Mugabe a revolutionary hero or a ruthless despot? Can someone be both?

“Here’s where the cliché about absolute power corrupting absolutely applies,” Farber said. “But I also think that like a lot of people he went into office hoping to do the right thing, until he got a taste of power.”

Inspired by real events, much of the play centers on Mugabe’s sessions with his psychiatrist, Andrew Peric (Duane Daniels).  The sessions, arranged by Mugabe’s second wife, Grace (Ryan Jenkins), serve as a handy expositional device and help humanize the play’s anti-hero.

Michael Traylor portrays Mugabe. “I’m still trying to figure out why he hired a white psychiatrist to help him.” Traylor said. “I’m still trying to figure out why he agrees to be vulnerable, to not be the strong leader. There seems to be two sides to this man. On the one hand, he battled the repressive white colonialists and helped Zimbabwe achieve independence. At the start his heart was in the right place, but once he got into power it just corrupted him.”

It’s through Mugabe’s sessions with Peric that we learn the strongman was haunted late in his life by the ngozi, or ghost, of the ex-guerilla leader Josiah Tongogara. Mugabe fought alongside Tongogara in Zimbawe’s revolutionary war. It was Tongogara who many believed would become Zimbabwe’s first president. Instead, he died in a suspicious car accident.

Mugabe was never directly implicated in Tongogara’s death, but suffice it to say that the dictator’s personal breakthrough under psychoanalysis does not end well for Dr. Peric.

If you go

Breakfast With Mugabe
Dates: October 25 – November 10, 2019
Location: Helen K. Mason Performing Arts Center, 1333 E. Washington St. in Phoenix
Tickets: $41 at blacktheatretroupe.org or call (602) 258-8129