In a shuttered department store, Quantum Theatre's Karla Boos directs a rehearsal for the U.S. premiere of Fraser Grace's Breakfast With Mugabe. The scene is a tense one involving two uneasily matched citizens of President Robert Mugabe's suffering Zimbabwe: Dr. Peric, the liberal white African psychiatrist summoned to rid Mugabe of a supposed evil spirit, and Gabriel, the president's bodyguard.
Actors Ezra Barnes and Gregory Mikell are alone on the stage, which sits amid the large and forlornly emptied second floor of Downtown's former Lazarus store. Above the stage rises a striking, two-story atrium, from each of whose two circular balconies demolition workers have clawed a big chunk. But as Boos helps the actors navigate the play's complex crosscurrents of race and national identity, the scene, like Mugabe himself, seems haunted: In the vast, shadowy space beyond the spot-lit little stage, a tall man paces, a dark overcoat caping his shoulders.
That's Don Marshall, who plays Mugabe. Marshall doesn't much resemble the diminutive Mugabe; he's also two decades younger than the 84-year-old dictator. And the near-legendary Marshall has chosen a decidedly challenging role with which to continue his comeback onto Pittsburgh stages.
Marshall is an effusive Aliquippa native who's been an entrepreneur, a Christian minister and a radio broadcaster. But in Pittsburgh, he's best known for his stage work starting in the late 1980s and including a triumphant lead role in City Theatre's 1993 production of Richard Wright's The Man Who Lived Underground. He later mounted a successful, nationally touring revival of the one-man show Paul Robeson (the 1988 Pittsburgh version of which had wrecked Marshall financially).
After spending some years caring for his elderly mother, Marshall returned with a well-received 2005 Robeson revival, at Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Co. In 2006, also at Playwrights, Marshall drew accolades for his unmoored Vietnam vet in "The Exile of King Harold," a one-act by Mark Clayton Southers.
Quantum's Boos, who'd known Marshall for years, matched him to the Mugabe script. "This is an important role and moment for him to address," she says.
Robert Mugabe belonged to a generation of black Africans who fought (and were jailed) for the liberation of their countries. In 1980, when white rule was overturned in the former British colony of Rhodesia, Mugabe became Zimbabwe's first president elected by the full, majority-black population. But early promise soured, and today the nation of 13 million is wracked by famine, massive inflation and a living standard among the worst on the continent.
The play is set in 2001, and takes place mostly in the Harare State House. Playwright Grace, who's British, was inspired by a cryptic news report about Mugabe's mental state. The 2005 and 2006 U.K. productions were critically praised; The Guardian called the play Shakespearean in scope.
Boos says Mugabe depicts the debate over whether former African colonies can ever govern themselves -- a conflict embodied in Mugabe and Peric, who believes Mugabe's real "evil spirit" (or ngozi) is his inability to face atrocities he countenanced. The plot also turns on Mugabe's seizure of farms owned by white Africans, which were given to poor blacks -- a move many observers blame for Zimbabwe's woes.
"Mugabe is one of those people that I've been somewhat interested in for years now," says Marshall. He likes that Breakfast With Mugabe offers African from an African perspective.
In Quantum's Mugabe, the ruined Zimbabwe is echoed by the failed Lazarus (now undergoing redevelopment as Piatt Place). The full-round stage configuration forces audience members to watch each other along with the performance -- and to contemplate the mysterious threats lurking outside the circle.
In his return to ensemble acting, says Marshall, "I have to learn to work with other people again." Boos, meanwhile, is betting on Marshall's interpretation of a notorious dictator. "He loves his character and he more than anyone believes [Mugabe is] a deeply evil son of a bitch."
"For lack of a better term, he's fucked up the land," Marshall says of Mugabe. "He is a destroyer."
Quantum Theatre presents Breakfast With Mugabe Feb. 7-24. Piatt Place, Fifth Avenue at Wood Street, Downtown. $25-32 ($15 students). 412-394-3353 or www.quantumtheatre.com