by Demetra M. Pappas, JD, MSc, PhD, correspondent
Barely two weeks ago, on August 22, 2013, Zimbabwe’s President, Robert Gabriel Mugabe was sworn in for another five year term, extending a tenure which has already lasted 33 years. Reports of the election practices deployed (from not releasing ballots until the day before the July 31 election, to paper only to voters being turned away) were reported on in a way that had Mugabe’s +30% victory over rival Morgan Tsvangirai making the United States election (or not) of George W. Bush and the case of Bush v. Gore look like kindergarten;
for one such example of reportage, see “Taking Oath, Mugabe Adds to His Rule of Zimbabwe,” by Lydia Polgreen, writing for The New York Times. Indeed, Mugabe’s presidency has been marked by tumult and chaos and what might be viewed as reverse colonialism in repatriating lands from the former white elite minority to the black population, so much so that some universities which had awarded him honorary doctorates revoked them (for example, the University of Massachusetts, the University of Edinburgh and Michigan State University, for reasons relating to corruption, human rights abuses and disregard for the democratic process) as well as revocation of honors by Queen Elizabeth (previously bestowed for Mugabe’s fostering of good relations between Britain and Zimbabwe and revoked for abuse of the democratic process and human rights violations). Such a man, whether viewed as a crusader or a folk devil, makes for drama in reality and in dramaturgy.
This excellent Off-Broadway play (Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre, Pershing Square Signature Center,
480 West 42nd Street, 212-279-4200) is written by Fraser Grace. To me, the piece is one part African nationalist revolutionary movement (with most of the violence inferred) and one part The King’s Speech. It imagines Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe, a black African revolutionary leader (not in the mold of the now-ailing pacifistic Nelson Mandela, who was also jailed at length) finds himself in Colin Firth’s King George V therapeutic positions. That is to say that the therapeutic language and training (first name of patient, a big controversy in both this play and the Oscar-winning movie script) is elegantly articulated (in both English and tribal languages) during the 110 minute play (the Playbill calls it 90 minutes, but the play runs a bit longer). As an aside, I note that there is also a very useful “Glossary of Shona and Culturally Specific Terms” included in the notes.
There is only one scenic location here – an elegant well-appointed reception room of now-President Mugabe’s Presidential Palace. The chandelier alone is a show stopper (and talking point as audience members enter the theater), and lighting designer Joyce Liao uses it to great effect on Lee Savage’s set. This room is where white psychiatrist Andrew Peric (Ezra Barnes, a study in restraint and composure) is summarily ordered by Mugabe’s secretary-turned-wife Grace (the imperious Rosalyn Coleman) to give therapy to Mugabe (Michael Rogers, whose bullying tantrums and stresses would do Tony Soprano proud, albeit another continent and social setting).
A great deal of time is spent here, as with The King’s Speech, on the fact that the patient should be referred to by his first name, and that time boundaries are to be honored. These small matters of traditional therapy raise eyebrows (and voices) here, as well as stopping the conversation of wife Grace and bodyman Gabriel (lethally played by Che Ayende). Grace’s alternatively played splendid royal and bullying bride is well-matched by Gabriel’s physical and psychological threats of the man who would reluctantly be psychiatrist.
Mugabe engages in a litany of patient-inappropriate behaviors (as one who has written and taught on medical sociology, I can say that many a doctor would have discharged him as a patient, with a sigh of relief). Some behaviors are presidentially inappropriate, too (using his office to ferret out the doctor’s finances and personal life, family history and romantic present, for purposes of bullying him). Unlike the emerging trust and mutual work that emerges between King George and “Lionel” (the not-quite-a-doctor Logue), in this production the audience is confronted by a continuing erosion of trust and numerous betrayals (not by the doctor) of the therapeutic trust relationship. In a parallel story line, which I will not spoil by repeating, “Violence Consultant” J. David Brimmer does a superb and frighteningly realistic visual and auditory set of interchanges.
Watching the psychiatrist (regardless of race) be subjected to the inappropriate conduct of the patient, the wife and the bodyman is painful; once the politics of race and nationalism are factored in, they are predictive of the devastating, irrevocable personal and professional losses the doctor will have to endure, even as Mugabe (and company) go onto political, economic and social gain.
Hard to watch, yet essential to do, I would send friends (indeed, I already have), family, colleagues and students to see this production, which has the same cast as the 2010 production. There is a fair amount of history, culture and emerging land rights (and wrongs) in the play, well worth absorbing. I would be especially keen to learn the comments of my former colleague during graduate school years, Dr. Bruce Cauthen, whose work was on the sociology of nations and nationalism, and included a case study of South Africa, one very different from the one examined in this play.
Demetra Pappas was named the 2011/2012 SGA Faculty Member of the Year at St. Francis College for her work in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice. Her recent book, Historical Guides to Controversial Issues in America: The Euthanasia/Assisted Suicide Debate, (Greenwood Press, 2012) (100 year study of US and UK doctors prosecuted for medical euthanasia/assisted suicide and role of media) was recently nominated, for the 2014 International Qualitative Inquiry Book Prize and was nominated and short listed, British Society of Criminology 2013 Criminology Book Prize.