Michael John Garcés is the director for Danai Gurira's The Convert. He originally directed the play this spring for Woolly Mammoth Theater Company in Washington, DC, in a production featuring the same design team and three of the leading actors who are appearing at the Wilma. A week before beginning rehearsals in Philadelphia, he spoke on the phone with Walter Bilderback about The Convert, his career, directing, and other topics.
WALTER BILDERBACK: As I was trying to do some very cursory research, I realized I had forgotten that you are also a playwright. Which came first - the playwriting or the directing?
MICHAEL JOHN GARCÉS: Playwright definitely came first. I started writing plays after I moved to New York. I originally moved to New York to be an actor and pretty quickly got fed up with some of the aspects of the business of acting and I think that spurred me to write scripts and things like that. And you know, as a young writer you’re trying to get things produced and you wind up just making it yourself and you wind up directing. So I fell very backwards into directing, and it was really other writers seeing stuff that I did of my own and saying, “Hey do you want to direct my play?” and kind of being like “Well, I’m not really a director, but sure!” And it sort of organically grew out of that kind of conversation and situation.
WB: Do they feed off of each other in your work?
MG: I think my directing is definitely impacted by my writing. My focus with directing has always been on new work with living playwrights and scripts that are at least on some level in the process of becoming. So the understanding I believe I possess of writer’s processes, and how I interact with writers is informed by my own practice. And I’m just a very text-based guy. All my impulses come from the text, I don’t tend to visualize things and work that way. I tend to come out of the rhythm and the images that are evoked in the writing. And I think that comes because I’m a text-based person and oriented towards written word and spoken word.
An essay John M. Baker
READ PART ONE
The Ndebele and Shona were subdued by these wars and endured more than 80 years of British minority rule, which further disenfranchised Africans in the region. Blacks were driven into reservations, prohibited from owning land in white areas, and denied the right to vote and hold political office or any high office in the army, police, or public service. The marginalized Africans welcomed white missionaries into their tribal lands, and many missionaries saw an opportunity to uplift the downtrodden locals by educating them and converting them to Christianity. Today, in post-colonial Zimbabwe, an estimated 70 to 80% of the country’s population belongs to some Christian denomination, with many facing the dilemma of negotiating Christian beliefs and African traditions. A June 2012 article in Zimbabwe’s largest daily newspaper sums up this spiritual and cultural quandary: “…many Zimbabweans are Christians by day and African traditionalists by night, many Zimbabweans are Christians in town and traditionalists in their rural homes...who is fooling who or what is blending what and what brand are we?”
An essay John M. Baker
The Convert is the first chapter in a trilogy of plays Danai Gurira is creating about Zimbabwean identity. In this first play, she transports audiences to Southern Africa in the mid-1890s: a major historical moment for the part of the continent then known as Rhodesia, today called Zimbabwe. During this turning point in African history, ideologies, religions, traditions, and cultures collided with the arrival of British colonizers and Christian missionaries, and the reverberating effects of these events are still palpable in Zimbabwe today. To begin understanding twenty-first century Zimbabwe and to begin grappling with her own identity as a Christian, a woman, and a Zimbabwean, Gurira knew she had to start by excavating this inciting incident. “Who we are today,” she explains, “is how we are affected by what happened back then.”
A few treaties and concessions in the late 1880s paved the way for much of the social, political, and cultural chaos in which Gurira’s characters are immersed. During the late nineteenth-century Scramble for Africa, Zimbabwe’s mineral deposits and agricultural riches made the home of the Ndebele and Shona peoples very desirable to the British, Germans, Portuguese, and Boers. The British gained the advantage when the leader of the Ndebele signed the Rudd Concession and the Moffatt Treaty, unknowingly conferring British politician and businessman Cecil John Rhodes with sweeping commercial and legal powers and “complete and exclusive charge of all metal and mineral rights.” Queen Victoria then granted Rhodes a charter, and his British South Africa Company (BSAC) became the administrative power in the region. Before long, the first group of settlers had arrived and Rhodes had granted Christian missionaries huge tracts of land to build mission stations.
Bootycandy actor Benja Kay Thomas took a few behind the scenes photos of our amazing cast as they are fitted for costumes. Check out what happens back-stage!
Robert O’Hara’s Bootycandy was inspired in part by the life and music of Michael Jackson. And there’s no better feeling than having composer Lindsay Jones’ re-workings of “Smooth Criminal” and “Beat It” playing in your head after rehearsal. But what strikes me most strongly as a young director about Robert’s work is his calibration of the other music in Bootycandy - the music of his text. Robert crafts the actors’ delivery of his dialogue with great precision. In rehearsal, Robert conducts the symphony of Bootycandy. He waves his arms, snaps to an unseen metronome and gestures at the exact moment an actor should speak to end a beat of silence. At times, he paces around the rehearsal room with eyes shut, listening.