‘Where are you from?” It’s a question that writer and actor Tonderai Munyevu gets a lot. In the opening moments of Mugabe, My Dad and Me, he recalls it being asked by a white man he was serving in a bar, who went on to offer strong, ill-informed opinions about Munyevu’s native Zimbabwe. This show is Munyevu’s response.
As the title suggests, it revolves around two men who have loomed large in Munyevu’s life, each shaped by Zimbabwe’s violent colonial history: controversial former president Robert Mugabe, and Munyevu’s heavy-drinking, often absent father. He traces the outlines of their lives both before and after Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980, interspersed with his own experience as a member of the diaspora, having moved to the UK as a child. It’s an ambitious piece, tackling colonialism, neo-colonialism and different understandings of land, ownership and belonging.
Munyevu’s storytelling jumps rapidly between personal and political, then and now. Memory, Munyevu suggests, is something that afflicts the diaspora. In John R Wilkinson’s production, that affliction surrounds him – be it the ghostly chorus of costumes hanging over his head or the music of the mbira summoning his ancestors. Playing this traditional Zimbabwean instrument, musician Millie Chapanda becomes both an observer and a presence from the past, standing in for various figures in Munyevu’s story.
Munyevu is a naturally warm performer, unafraid to use his charm to deliver a sting. He’s sharply aware throughout of the mostly white gaze of the audience, confronting our ignorance and complicity. The show aims in part to educate, but without attempting to be a straightforward history lesson. Munyevu refuses to resolve the complexity of Zimbabwe’s past, leaving spectators to piece together the jagged fragments of history that he offers us.
The lack of resolution or reassurance forces an audience to take Munyevu’s questions out of the theatre. Occasionally, though, the show gets tangled up in its own introspection. Some sections meander or repeat themselves a little too insistently. But there’s no question that more stories like this – sharing experiences of migration and reckoning with the legacies of empire – need to be told.