Mugabe, My Dad & Me
York Theatre Royal and English Touring Theatre
York Theatre Royal
It has taken Mugabe, My Dad & Me a long time to reach the stage. Originally programmed to play in the York Theatre Royal studio last year, it has fallen victim to numerous pandemic-related postponements. This week, however, it was finally performed in front of a live audience—albeit in the main theatre—and, overall, I would say it has been worth the wait.
In this thought-provoking show, writer and performer Tonderai Munyevu weaves together the personal and the political by exploring how his life has been affected by two overpowering men: Robert Mugabe, the despotic ruler of Zimbabwe between 1980 and 2017, and his estranged father. At one point, he explains that he chose not to focus on his mother’s story—she took her children to England to escape her abusive and womanising husband—for the simple reason that “Her story doesn’t hurt me”. This is a show that seeks to wrestle with inner pain.
The show begins with Munyevu recounting his experience of working as a barman in London and being asked the dreaded question “Where are you from?” by an elderly white patron. The digressive, often fragmented narrative which unfolds is a direct response to that question, with Munyevu exploring his identity as a gay Zimbabwean man living in a country that sometimes leaves him feeling rejected.
A charismatic and energetic performer, Munyevu forms a bond with the audience as soon as he bounds onto the stage. Despite his protestation that he is no great impressionist, he succeeds in breathing life into a variety of characters, not least the two men mentioned in the show’s title. The scene in which he imagines a conversation between himself and Mugabe at his father’s graveside manages to be darkly comic whilst also making deadly serious points.
Throughout the show, Munyevu is joined by the musician Millie Chapanda, who underscores the drama with a mbira. This percussive instrument, which consists of a wooden board and staggered metal tines, represents Munyevu’s Zimbabwean heritage and provides a compelling accompaniment to the drama that unfolds.
An intimate show like this would normally fare better in a studio context, but John R Wilkinson’s unfussy direction makes effective use of the performance space. The ghosts which haunt Munyevu are powerfully manifested by set and costume designer Nicolai Hart-Hansen in the form of clothes suspended above the performers’ heads.
Reviewer: James Ballands