The Convert, the new play by Danai Gurira now at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington, is an epic human drama that presents vast cultural issues in affecting human terms. While the subject matter may seem forbiddingthe clash between indigenous Africans and British colonizers in the late 19th centurythe theme is very simple: how much of one's heritage can a person hold onto while accepting new ideas?
Gurira grew up in Zimbabwe, although she was born in Iowa and now lives in Los Angeles. The Convert is the first part of a projected trilogy showing the history of that country through the experiences of its residents.
The action begins in 1895 as Jekesai (Nancy Moricette), a member of the Shona tribe, seeks sanctuary in the home of the Catholic missionary Chilford (Irungu Mutu), where her aunt Mai Tamba (Starla Benford) works as a maid. Jekesai wants to escape an unsuitable marriage arranged by her drunken, irresponsible uncle (Erik Kilpatrick), and she soon takes the biblical name "Ester" and becomes devoted to the church as a servant in Chilford's house.
The situation, of course, remains precarious. Chilford has education and has abandoned the Shona language for fluent English, but he cannot become a Catholic priest because that privilege is reserved for white men. Mai Tamba quietly maintains her tribal traditions while living in a town under British jurisdiction; her son Tamba (JaBen Early) remains in a rural village with the rest of his family. Chilford's friend Chancellor (Alvin Keith), a businessman in an elegant white suit and brocaded waistcoat, and his fiancée Prudence (Dawn Ursula) think of themselves as British subjects.
Director Michael John Garcés navigates the many levels of Gurira's scriptranging from domestic comedy to tragedywith a clear eye and a sure hand, making its three-hour length seem much briefer. Moricette demonstrates great poise and subtlety in the pivotal central role, from her first appearance in brief native garb to her third-act incarnation in an elegant white dress. (Helen Huang's costumes are exquisitely detailed.)
The people of The Convert have to choose sides between two absolute beliefs: on the Shona side, "Nothing is stronger than blood"; on the Catholic side, "God gives us the right to pick our earthly families." The conflict stays with the audience long after the play ends.
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company