Regional Reviews: San Francisco
The Convert takes place in Rhodesia (which later became Zimbabwe) and is the story of Jekesai, a young African woman who converts to Catholicism to escape an arranged marriage. She becomes devout and then finds herself in the center of a bloody cultural upheaval. There are elements of George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion in this absorbing drama. The play is fascinating, with wonderful, riveting characters to move the plot along. Some of the interchange is in Shona, with the English heavily emphasized and filled with picturesque and delightful malapropisms.
The performances feel very genuine. Jabari Brisport is excellent as the black missionary Chilford who converts Jekesai to Catholicism. He is a wannabe priest in the pay of the white colonizer. Brisport successfully plays the role as a deeply earnest and somewhat naïve person who was also converted to the Catholic faith by another priest.
Katherine Renee Turner gives a captivating performance as Jekesai, who takes the Christian name of Ester. She expertly morphs into a woman who embraces education and the refinement of Victorian morality.
Elizabeth Carter gives a terrific performance as Chilford's housekeeper Mai Tamba, who pays lip service to Catholicism to placate him. She occasionally prays in front of a Virgin Mary statue and starts the prayer "Hail Mary, full of ghosts." She clandestinely worships her descendants and hides pagan jujus around the house as she dusts. She adds humor to this dialectic production.
L. Peter Callender gives a wonderful animated performance as the drunken uncle of Jekesai/Ester. Omoze Idehenre gives a striking performance as Ester's foil Prudence, an educated African woman who speaks English with a crisp aristocratic accent and smokes a pipe. Jefferson A Russell is vividly engaging as Chancellor. Rounding out the splendid cast is JaBen Early, as Ester's cousin Tamba. He gives an impressive performance in the less showy role.
Dialect coach Lynne Soffer should be complimented for the accents of the cast. They are remarkably effective and help invoke the sense of place. Nina Ball's set of the missionary's living room is perfect, showing a South African influence with its upholstered furniture and a large crucifix displayed on the wall. Jasson Minadakis' direction is sharp and effective. This is a potent piece of theatre.
The Convert plays through March 15, 2015, at the Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley. For tickets call 415-388-5208 or visit www.marintheatre.org. Coming next is Mona Mansour's The Way West opening on April 16 and running through May 10th.