The Convert

Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company's THE CONVERT
by Danai Gurira
directed by Michael John Garcés
October 9, 2013November 10, 2013

Review: The Convert

Yes, Danai Gurira slashed her way to commercial success as Michonne, The Walking Dead’s taciturn, katana-wielding zombie beheader. But the Wilma Theater’s co-production (with Washington D.C.‘s Wooly Mammoth Theatre Company) of her third play, The Convert, proves she has plenty to say, particularly about Zimbabwe--her childhood home--and its bloody colonial legacy.

The first of a planned trilogy about the country’s struggles, The Convert occurs at the dawn of British colonial rule, from 1895-97, in the newly christened city of Salisbury, Rhodesia. However, its characters are all African. Young Jekesai (Nancy Moricette), a Shona girl fleeing an arranged marriage, is brought to the home of Chilford (Irungu Mutu), a Jesuit and aspiring minister, by her aunt and his houskeeper, Mai Tamba (Starla Benford). 

Jekesai proves an avid disciple, forsakes her family and culture and takes the biblical name Ester (perhaps a nod to August Wilson’s own recurring character, Aunt Ester). After all, the white man’s Jesus saved her from becoming, as she exclaims to her cousin Tamba (Joshua E. Nelson), “some old goat’s tenth wife.” Chilford own cultural conversion shows its seams in his uneasy use of English idiom, as when he calls a mixed bag of a day, “a bag of mixtures.” Meanwhile, outside Chilford’s tidy home--with its upholstered sofas and concrete floors, rather than cow dung, as is the local custom--a similar, though far bloodier, battle rages.

Gurira deftly weaves allusions to western playwrights throughout her script. In her comic act one (of three), Chilford and his corrupt pal Chancellor (Lance Coadie Williams) discuss Ester’s savagery and potential like African versions of Shaw’s Higgins and Pickering. In act two, colonial violence destroys local villages and edges ever closer to bafu (“white man’s native”) traitors. Chilford flinches and flails like O’Neill’s Emperor Jones when, despite his best efforts to anglicize his home, he discovers he’s been living among Mai Tamba’s surreptitiously placed witch doctor totems all along.

Gurira has created an epic crammed so full with fascinating ancillary characters, such as Chancellor’s fiancee, the highly educated, displaced Prudence (Zainab Jah), three acts prove just enough time to get to know them all, and its unlikely denouement seems almost beside the point. Michael John Garces’ direction occasionally sags with melodrama, and Chilford’s character stops developing during its second act. But led by Moricette, whose broad smile or stubbornly jutting chin reflect Jekesai/Ester’s many internal contradictions and struggles, this first-rate cast brings Gurira’s characters to life, and leaves its audience hungry for the next chapters in their history.

Playing at: Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad St., Philadelphia. Through Sun., Nov. 10. Tickets: $35 to $66. Information: 215-546-7824 or www.WilmaTheater.org