Writer/Performer: Tonderai Munyevu
Director: John R. Wilkinson
The printed text of Mugabe, My Dad & Me contains the rather surprising instruction, “There must always be a female mbira player to perform traditional Shona mbira compositions.” Clearly the role of the mbira player is to be more than just providing incidental music.
And so it proves. Millie Chapanda is on stage virtually throughout and, though she spends a fair bit of time still and silent, in performance it never feels like a one man play. She explains the spiritual significance of the mbira (which creates a gently bell-like sound) and finally concludes the play with a long traditional song after Tonderai Munyevu has left the stage. She provides a female voice, but also represents Africa and tradition: appropriately, while Munyevu is dressed in casual shirt and jeans, she wears elaborate traditional dress.
Mugabe, My Dad & Me is the story, in rather fragmented form, of Tonderai Munyevu, a gay Zimbabwe-born actor and writer long settled in the UK. He came to the country as a boy when his mother left Zimbabwe to escape his abusive father. Though he states that she was the main influence on his life, the play deals with his attempts at understanding the two men who had a major effect on him: his father and the man who seemed to be the permanent President of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe. His father’s death affected him comparatively little; it was only when Mugabe was deposed that he returned to the country to visit his father’s grave and re-discover family.
After a rather over-jolly welcome Munyevu segues neatly into a scene that will be echoed at the end of the play. He is pulling pints in a London pub as an out-of-work actor and a customer asks, “Where are you from?” and then proceeds to tell him where Zimbabwe went wrong. Two themes are thus set up instantly: the difficulty of a “diasporian” (Munyevu’s term) identifying home and the totally wrong assumption of the white British that they understand black Africa. At the end of the scene he turns amiably on the mainly white audience and tells us to prepare for a History lesson.
The play, running 85 minutes without interval, deals above all with the question of identity. Tonde is the boy who is mocked at his new school for being gay, the man who is on a drunken search for sex in Soho when he hears of his father’s death, but he is also the man who discovers family secrets in a circular hut in an African village, the man who conjures up the spirit of Mugabe while standing at his father’s graveside.
Though its intimacy would better suit the Studio for which it was originally planned, Mugabe, My Dad & Me is impressively challenging and thought-provoking as well as a vivid narrative. Munyevu is passionate when required, engagingly self-deprecating with the audience, and brings a dramatic intensity and sharp-edged characterisation to key dialogue scenes with his father, the Zimbabwe police or Mugabe.
John R. Wilkinson’s direction is mostly unfussy, with occasional stylised movement for Munyevu and Chapanda emphasising the element of ritual. Faced with a large stage to fill, designer Nicolai Hart-Hansen takes the ingenious course of hanging the suits of the figures in Tonde’s life above him, to be lowered when required – so we see Tonde, rather amusingly, assume the appearance of Mugabe in the key graveside scene.
Runs until September 18th 2021