Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
These are just a few of the lofty questions posed in Danai Gurira's riveting play The Convert, which has been brought to the Twin Cities after an eight-year campaign to obtain the rights by that caldron of mesmerizing stage craft, Frank Theatre. Ten years ago, Wendy Knox, Frank's artistic director, staged Gurira's Eclipsed a year after it premiered at Wooly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., and five years before its award-winning Off-Broadway run and subsequent transfer to Broadway. Frank had great success with Eclipsed and has struck gold again with another play by Gurira. Many Twin Cities theatergoers also encountered Gurira's incisive gifts as a playwright a couple of seasons back with the Guthrie's production of her most recent play, Familiar.
While both The Convert and Eclipsed are set in Africa and deal with the press upon body and soul of women under brutal conditions, there are vast differences between them. Eclipsed, set in 2003 in a Liberian prison camp where women are held as "wives" of a civil war general, explores the bonds among these women and their ways of coping with their captivity. The Convert takes place almost one hundred years earlier in Zimbabwe, soon after its colonization by the British under the thrust of railroad-builder Cecil Rhodes (the British called the territory Rhodesia in his honor). The primary focus of The Convert is one woman, Jekesai, a member of the Shona people, who turns from the animist beliefs enshrined within her to Christianity to avoid forced "marriage" to an old man with "more wives than I have fingers."
As a neophyte Christian, Jekesai is dubbed Ester by Chilford, a black African catechism teacher who aspires to become a priest and who is persuaded to take her in by his housekeeper, Mai Tamba, who is Jekasai's aunt. Ester proves to be a very bright student who quickly learns the tenets of the church. She wholly embraces her new faith, which she credits for saving her from a life of misery. She is hounded by her Uncle, who was her guardian and feels cheated out of the goats he would have received as her bride price. Moreover, Uncle sees Chilford and those like him, including his niece, as traitors, pawns of the white intruders who rob the Shona of their land, their resources, their language, and their beliefs.
While Chilford adapts to the white incursion into Zimbabwe as a devotedly pious Christian, his best friend Chancellor aligns with the white exploiters of workers and resources, making himself rich and dressing in elegance (Kathy Kohl designed the evocative costumes). Chancellor's fiancée Prudence has learned to live with the white world's finery without losing connections to her native past, a lesson that comes to Ester at a great cost.
The play's climax calls into question what becomes of the parts of ourselves we bury. It also raises the scars left by a history of subjugation where each side notes the barbarism of the other but not of themselves, and the oppression two near-opposite cultures wage upon women. Neither can offer women a safe haven free of violent cultural forces.
Gurira writes a fair amount of the dialogue in Shona (with credit due to Shona consultants Dominic Kanaventi and Munya Tirivepi and dialect coach Foster Johns), bringing a deep chord of authenticity to The Convert. With no need for projected translations, the play is devised so that little time passes before we gather what the characters are saying, and there is never a mistake in terms of the emotional tone of their words, a tribute both to Gurira's script and excellent acting by the entire cast. The use of a language totally foreign to the great majority of the audience confers a sense of the cultural violence felt by the Shona, as the British imposed English language and customs upon them, they who had spoken their own tongue for over a thousand years, and established Great Zimbabwe as the center of power and trade in southern Africa from the 13th through the 15th centuries.
As Jekesai/Ester, Ashe Jaafaru is a force of nature, from her first entrance into Chilford's home, examining its English decor, testing the plush upholstered sofa, like a child entering into a storybook, to her assertively professing of the Christian "truth" she has discovered, to an incendiary ending where neither her Christian conversion nor her native Shona beliefs can save her. Jaafaru caught my attention as the center of School Girls, or the African Mean Girls Play at Jungle Theater. With this performance she ensures us that her prodigious gifts are the real thing.
Yinka Ayinde is compelling as Chilford, so thoroughly enmeshed in his embrace of the Christian teachings and scorn for what he has come to see as the barbaric native ways. He is ever upright and unyielding in his beliefs yet refuses to reveal his own background or that of his parents, which led him to this position in life. Hope Cervantes is wonderful as Prudence, presenting at first the veneer of a woman who seeks the shallow privilege of quasi-acceptance into white society, but reveals far greater depth as she attempts to tutor Ester on how to survive between two worlds at war.
AJ Friday creates a vivid portrait of the self-serving Chancellor who believes that the white world's games have room for him at the table, requiring nothing in the way of ethical conduct. Maje Adams breathes life into Tamba, whose kind heart becomes inflamed when he is caught in the jaws of the colonizers. Ivory Doublette adroitly conveys Mai Tamba's double life, posing as a Christian believer in front of Chilford and practicing her native beliefs in his absence. Completing the superb ensemble, Warren C. Bowles is Uncle, seemingly hard-headed and unyielding in his beliefs, but one who demonstrates the resiliency of a people to fight for their identity. Splendid work by them all.
Knox has directed The Convert with her usual storyteller's gifts, navigating between two languages and keeping Gurira's narrative aloft, establishing its historical context while drawing out its compelling currency. Sound designer Dan Dukich provides music that fluidly bridges the transitions between scenes, and Tony Stoeri's lighting design aligns with Ester's emotional, spiritual and visceral journey. The setting, designed by Joe Stanley, presents the clear boundary of Childford's house: within it are the comforts of English design and the artifacts of Christian belief, while outside that border, life is a mass of conflict and uncertainty.
The Convert is staged by Frank Theatre at the intimate Gremlin Theatre, which allows the entire audience to be very near the action. This may help with following the exchanges in Shona, as well as Chilford's pronounced African-inflected British accent, with his charming rearrangements of English grammatical structure throughout. It also makes keeps us close to the intense action and fraught decisions that maintain the play's firm grip on our attention. The upheavals we bear witness to are a grim reminder of ugly chapters in the history of mankindand reminders of the thin line between yesteryear's atrocities and today's headlines. The Convert ranks as one of the most powerful works seen on Twin Cities stages this season.
The Convert presented by Frank Theatre, runs through March 15, 2020, at Gremlin Theatre, 550 Vandalia Street, Saint Paul MN. Adults - $30.00; students and seniors: $25.00. For tickets please visit franktheatre.org or call 612-724-3760.
Playwright: Danai Gurira; Director: Wendy Knox; Set Design: Joe Stanley; Costume Design: Kathy Kohl; Lighting Design: Tony Stoeri; Sound Design: Dan Dukich; Props Design: Kenji Shoemaker; Fight Director: Annie Enneking; Dialect Coach: Foster Johns; Shona Consultants: Dominic Kanaventi and Munya Tirivepi; Stage Manager: Megan Fae Dougherty.
Cast: Maje Adams (Tamba), Yinka Ayinde (Chilford), Warren C. Bowles (Uncle), Hope Cervantes (Prudence), Ivory Doublette (Mai Tamba), AJ Friday (Chancellor), Ashe Jaafaru (Ester/Jekesai).