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A Powder Keg of Conflict: Religion, Family, Race, and Identity; Danai Gurira’s World Premiere “The Convert” Opens at McCarter

CULTURE CLASH: Chilford (LeRoy McClain), Bible in hand, spreads the Roman Catholic faith in 1895 Rhodesia (present day Zimbabwe), as his unconverted servant Mai Tamba (Cheryl Lynn Bruce) looks on, firmly rooted in the beliefs of her ancestors, in the world premiere production of Danai Gurira’s “The Convert” at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre through February 12. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Danai Gurira’s new play at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre, The Convert, is an historical drama, set in 1895-97 in what is now Zimbabwe. In her introduction to the play, Ms. Gurira describes the historical and political background: “the iron claw of colonization” with its “Western cultural impositions,” including “taxes, menial labor, and Judeo-Christian morals imposed by an uninvited lord,” clashing violently with the African people and their traditions.

Beyond history and politics, however, are the human stories that this production brings to life with riveting intensity, emotion, and unforgettable drama. There is the protagonist Jekesai (Pascale Armand), given the Christian name Ester, the young woman “convert,” who leaves the village of her family and joins the world of the Roman Catholic Church; her aunt Mai Temba (Cheryl Lynn Bruce), “mother of the earth,” who brings her niece under the protection of the Catholic Church but remains herself unconverted, wedded to ancient pagan rituals and beliefs of the Shona tribe; the dedicated catechist Chilford Ndlovu (LeRoy McClain), long ago uprooted from his family and African heritage, determined to serve the white man’s church and to convert Ester, her aunt and any other Africans he can win over; Tamba (Warner Joseph Miller), Mai Tamba’s son and Jekesai’s cousin, a young mine worker, unhappy with his lot and ready for rebellion; Chancellor (Kevin Mambo), translator for the white men, friend of Chilford, an opportunist who finds himself drastically caught between white and black worlds; Jekesai’s unscrupulous Uncle (Harold Surratt), who wants Jekesai back under his possession so he can marry her off for a rich bride price to an older man with ten other wives; and Prudence (Zainab Jah), a well-educated, outspoken woman, fiancée of Chancellor and wise friend to Jekesai.

The thirty-one-year-old Ms. Gurira, born in the U.S. to Zimbabwean parents and raised in Zimbabwe, has created a rich array of complex, three-dimensional characters — engaging, passionate, mostly likeable individuals that the audience cannot help but care about. All Africans — none of the priests or other European characters mentioned appear on stage, these characters, throughout the three-hour play — three acts, nine different scenes, all set in the modest central room of Clifford’s home — find themselves caught up in the deadly personal and societal conflicts, of 1890s Rhodesia.

The Convert, Ms. Gurira’s third play, is a finely crafted, bold combination of traditional playwriting and striking innovation, of warm humor and stark tragedy, of harsh politics and touching humanity. Ms. Gurira tells her story with captivating detail and increasing suspense, keeping a tight grip on the audience’s interest and emotions and maintaining a delicate balance between the comedic and the deeply serious from start to finish.

The Convert does make unusual demands on its audience as the plot unfolds and the characters reveal themselves. Many of the lines, in whole or in part, are spoken in the characters’ native Shona language, and the English spoken is often heavily accented. This carefully rehearsed language contributes a vital air of authenticity to the production and the world of the play. These uses of language, in their variety and shifts, also reflect the deepest issues of the play, the struggle to achieve identity and the conflict between the imposed British world and the Shona world of the ancestors. Language is also a significant source of humor here, as characters try to take on the expressions of their British masters, and the malapropisms abound.

The problem for the audience of understanding the Shona dialogue and the heavily accented English remains significant, despite consistently superb acting and diction and some helpful repetition of lines. As I struggled to pick up the exposition and plot details and to hear every exchange between characters — you won’t want to miss what these fascinating characters are saying, I occasionally wished for the clarification of supertitles or a bit less heavy accents, even if at the cost of authenticity.

McCarter’s lovingly polished, swiftly paced, highly entertaining production, with first-rate cast and crews under the direction of Emily Mann, does full justice to Ms. Gurira’s original, powerful voice. Daniel Ostling’s beautifully simple, evocative set design, subtle lighting by Lap Chi Chu, and authentic costumes by Paul Tazewell contribute richly to the world of the drama.

With the Berlind Theatre’s limited seating and just three more weeks in the run before The Convert moves to Chicago’s Goodman Theatre then to the Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles, you might want to order your tickets quickly before the word gets around and this one sells out.

Ms. Gurira has declared her interest in George Bernard Shaw and has acknowledged an indebtedness here to Shaw’s Pygmalion (transformed later into My Fair Lady). The similarities and contrasts between The Convert and Pygmalion are noteworthy. Both Jekesai and Eliza are high-spirited young women enlisted to be shaped and “converted” by strong-willed older men. Both seem at first to be willing, subservient followers of their masters, but later clash with surprising results.

The Convert, however, is definitely not Pygmalion (even less My Fair Lady). Though language, specifically learning English and the language of church scripture here, is crucial to Jekesai’s conversion and to Ms. Gurira’s plot, the world of segregation and white oppression for black Rhodesians is a long way from the world of upper crust London society. In the context of the Ndebele-Shona uprising in southern Africa in 1896-97, Jekesai is driven to far more extreme measures than Eliza’s in her battle to reconcile her heritage with her assimilation into the world of white Roman Catholicism. The Convert takes on a decidedly more serious tone than its Shavian comedic counterpart.

This historical drama with its strange language, its African setting, and characters so far removed from our own, will nonetheless resonate powerfully with contemporary audiences — not just because so many peoples in so many nations of the world today are battling to forge their national and personal identities in the conflict between past and future, but also because Jekesai and her world are thoroughly universal. As Ms. Gurira says, “The more specific you get in your cultural expression, the more human you’re going to get.” The Convert is a moving human drama not to be missed.

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