Wooly Mammoth's 'The Convert': Culture Clash and Mixed Loyalties

"The Convert" runs at the Woolly Mammoth through March 10.
"The Convert" runs at the Woolly Mammoth through March 10.

When it comes to “The Convert,” a breadth- and breath-taking play about the clash and loss of culture by Danai Gurira, it’s hard to say who was more courageous in this undertaking. Is it Woolly Mammoth Theatre's artistic director Howard Shalwitz for taking on this three-hour-with-two-intermissions play about the seemingly long-ago (1895) and very distant colonization of what is now Zimbabwe in southern Africa or playwright Gurira for her ambitious, respectful and emotionally detailed play?

But then Woolly Mammoth and Shalwitz are known for their risk-taking enterprises. It is not entirely a surprise to find “The Convert” there or Gurira’s work, either. Two of the works of the playwright, who was born in the United States and grew up in Zimbabwe, have already been staged at Woolly—the searing “In the Continuum” about two women with AIDs in which she acted and for which she won a Helen Hayes and Obie Award and “Eclipsed” about the captive women surrounding an African warlord.

Still, “The Convert” is no small undertaking. In exploring with heartfelt intelligence the effects of British conquest on tribal and native culture, Gurira has chosen to leave any British or white presence out of the play, except as topics and points of at turns conversation, arguments, anger, rage and frustration. The British are never present but ever-present as the English, the masters, the whites, the white man or tribal slang words for blacks trying to be white.

The characters in “The Convert” are all from Rhodesian tribes of the period, the Ndebele and Shona, and they’re all dealing with questions of identity, conquest, allegiance to the old and curiosity about the new, especially Christianity, and , in particular here, Catholicism. You have Chilford, a young would-be-priest who now runs a Catholic church, trying to convert his friends and acquaintances, educated, devout and vehemently contemptuous of the old ways that include ancestor worship. His housekeeper Mai Tamba brings her niece Jekesai into his care, to keep her from an avaricious uncle who wants to marry the young girl of to a rich man in exchange for goats.

When we first see her, Jekesai is half naked, thoroughly a village girl. She has a presence that only grows through the course of the play—she takes to “conversion” with all the passion of a newbie, loving Jesus, converting others.

She is surrounded not only by Chilford, who wants to become a real priest with a parish of his own, and whom she continuously addresses as "Mastah," but also by his friends Chancellor, a businessman and dandy who’s taken up the white man’s way with Wildean flair, and his fiancée, the unbuttoned, smart, and ill-named Prudence, who speaks the King’s English better than the king. There is also Tamba, a friend from Jekesai’s bridal days. Jekesai seems often to be straddling a line. She seems to love the sermon-based theology, the possibility of a better future and for sure not having to marry old men with goats, but she misses her mother, her childhood, the reassuring and ghostly presence of ancestors.

The playwright takes her time with all these persons. She unravels them before they unravel under the tension of a devastating uprising where loyalties are tested and violence descends on their lives—and the roles of master and servant, the British and the whites, are revealed for what they are.

The audience is pulled every which way—and I don’t think just skin color will sway you towards love or resentment or passion for individual character. Clearly, Gurira has invested her heart and mind in Ester and just as clearly Nancy Moricette as Ester has invested a magnetic force into her acting—she commands the stage even when others are marching across it, or when she’s not present. She’s the tipping point in this play: where she goes the play goes and in Moricette you have a formidable talent.

Not that Dawn Ursula doesn’t give Moricette a run for her money as Prudence. Ursula brings Shavian spark to her role, a bitter sarcasm invades her lines. She’s beautiful, but for her it’s not enough to subsist on her beauty or charm, because she lives not only in a man’s world, but in a white man’s world on top of that. You see also that the women dominate the play, Starla Benford as Mai Tamba precipitates the action with her pleading, her fussiness, her thinly disguised contempt for the religion she pretends to embrace. The men—especially Alvin Keith as the often snarling and effete Chancellor shows his contempt not only for the rulers, but the ruled, and women in general giving new meaning to conflict in a character that’s often also immensely appealing.

You might have hoped that this play would be not quite so extreme in length, but it’s hard to figure what you could drop or throw out. The situation bears some explaining, given that Cecil Rhodes—unless you’re a history buff—is hardly a household name any more. Nor are the baleful stories of tribal subjugations of the South African region by the British and the Boers a part of everyday conversation.

You don’t have to know a lot of history here—some helps—but you do have to be able to recognize a powerful beating human heart in the character of Jekesai.

“The Convert” runs at the Woolly Mammoth through March 10.

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Thu, 28 Aug 2014 21:13:07 -0400

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