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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

The Convert A Tragic Account of the Evils of
Colonial Rule in Africa

Also see Bob's review of Boeing-Boeing

The Convert
Pascale Armand
The Convert, an ambitious and promising play by Danai Gurira is set in the colonial city of Salisbury, Rhodesia (present day Harare, Zimbabwe) in the late 19th Century (1895-1897) during a period of sustained rebellion against the British South Africa Company by the rival native Shona and Ndebele tribes. (A summary of the fascinating, complex historical background of The Convert is available on the McCarter Theatre website.)

The native Chilford Ndlovu was raised and educated at a Catholic mission. A fervent believer in the Church and Jesus Christ, Chilford is a catechist (lay teacher) who has built a congregation for the Church and maintains a school in which he educates native children with the purpose of converting them to Catholicism and instilling "civilized" European values. He has inherited his cement house from Jesuit missionaries (most of the native population live in huts with floors made of cow dung). Although being just a native catechist makes him unique, Chilford aspires to enter the Priesthood. Additionally, Chilford works for the colonial Native Commission as a mediator of disputes between members of the native population. He, along with other natives who work on behalf of the colonials, is called "Bafu"—"a traitor, a white man's native"—by rebel tribesman who mark such individuals for death.

After the death of her father, Jekesai, a young adolescent girl, has been ordered by her uncle to marry an elderly man who already has "many, many" wives (her uncle will receive goats in exchange for her). Fortunately for Jekesai, she also has an aunt, Mai Tamba, who is Chilford's housekeeper. Mai Tamba brings Jekesai to Chilford (the girl arrives bare breasted and Mai Tamba immediately changes her into a demure dress before Chilford can see her). She prompts the girl to tell the catechist that she wishes to become a Christian, and urges him to hire her to work for him. Uncle arrives on the scene accurately claiming that tribal law supports him, but Chilford invokes his colonial mediation power to enforce his anti-polygamy religious/cultural beliefs, and rules against Uncle. Chilford insists that if Jekesai works for him, she must attend his classes. Given the Biblical name of Ester (Esther) by Chilford, she becomes a true believer with the determination to study to become a teacher and spread the Gospel. However, in a play depicting the corrosive effects of colonialism, good intentions must go astray.

All seven characters depicted by Gurira are native Africans. Each responds differently to colonial political, economic, and cultural dominance. Despite our hostile feelings about polygamy and the subjugation of women, properly and expectedly, there is nothing in The Convert to mitigate the case against colonialism. Furthermore, the idea that the Judeo-Christian religion is superior to tribal religious beliefs takes quite a beating. Strong points are made about the value and comfort offered by Shona rites. Gurira's play is shockingly relevant more than a half century after the colonial era. After all, even today debates rage over how strongly our country can/should respond to those nations where freedom of religion is not allowed and women are subjugated.

The performances are uniformly excellent. Pascale Armand is lovely and appealing as the blossoming and resolute Jekesai/Ester. LeRoy McClain projects both the stubbornness and the decency which co-exist within the well intended Chilford. We can almost see the box out of which his Chilford is unable to think. Kevin Mambo is Chancellor, Chilford's childhood friend and benefactor. In keeping with the text, Mambo slowly reveals the evil of those who serve their oppressors only for their own self interest.

Cheryl Lynn Bruce fully embodies Mai Tamba and her personification of the native religious soul of Africa. Bruce integrates her larger than life African spiritualist side as a traditional healer with her embrace of practicality, and freedom for women. Harold Surratt (Uncle), Zainab Jah (Chancellor's independent fiancée Prudence), and Warner Joseph Miller (Mai Tamba's traditionalist son Tamba) lend solid support.

Emily Mann has directed at a steady, moderate pace which lends a sense of epic storytelling to the proceedings. However, the African accents are often too strong to allow us to hear essential dialogue which makes the play less accessible than it might otherwise be. Daniel Ostling has provided a solid and convincing, almost monochromatic set in shades of tan for the waiting room of Chilford's house.

Playwright Danai Gurira was born in America and raised in Zimbabwe after her parents return to their native home. She is best known as co-author of In The Continuum (2006) in which she performed. With The Convert, Gurira has embarked on writing an historical trilogy about her African homeland. Both her vision and accomplishment are due respect and attention. Her multi-faceted play is complex, richly textured and informative. However, The Convert is a work in progress which will require considerable revision to achieve its full potential. The three hour length of this three act play (performed with two short intermissions) is excessive. One result is difficulty in sorting out important information anent character, narrative and central themes from other material. More crucially, the intellectual appeal far outweighs any emotional involvement. There is an aura of academia that hangs over the first act. It plays as an interesting and enlightening history lesson rather than as arresting drama. The third act suffers from an abundance of melodramatic excess. The key action in response to events arises more from Gurira's need to find a powerful climax rather than organically from character.

The Convert is a stimulating play which I commend to those interested in serious dramatic theatre. As this rolling world premiere production wends its way from the McCarter to the co-producing Goodman Theatre in Chicago and Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles, Danai Gurira and her director Emily Mann will be able to re-evaluate their work for themselves by viewing it in performance along with the critical and audience reaction to it. How strong and important The Convert will become is in their hands.

The Convert continues performances (Evenings: Tuesday-Thursday and Sunday 7:30 pm (No performance 2/12)/ Friday and Saturday 8 pm; Matinees: Saturday 3 pm/ Sunday 2 pm) through February 12, 2012, at the McCarter Theatre Center (Berlind Theatre), 91 University Place, Princeton 08540. Box Office: 609-258-2787; online: www.mccarter.org.

The Convert by Danai Gurira; directed by Emily Mann

Cast
Mai Tamba...................Cheryl Lynn Bruce
Jekesai/Ester..................Pascale Armand
Tamba.....................Warner Joseph Miller
Chilford.............................LeRoy McClain
Uncle.................................Harold Surratt
Chancellor..........................Kevin Mambo
Prudence................................Zainab Jah


Photo: T. Charles Erickson


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- Bob Rendell



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