The Convert

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

Woolly Mammoth's THE CONVERT is Compelling, Insightful


As a self-professed Africa geek, there are more than several plays that have sparked my interest in recent years. Among that list of plays are Danai Gurira's In the Continuum (co-written with Nikkole Salter) and Eclipsed, both of which received extraordinary productions at Washington's ambitious Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. This season Woolly continues its relationship with this highly talented young playwright (and actress) with The Convert. Like her past plays seen at Woolly, Gurira explores African identity issues with a female perspective. Born in Iowa to Zimbabwean parents but raised in Zimbabwe, Gurira offers a thought-provoking glimpse into the socio-cultural forces that have, in part, shaped what the country has become today. A mostly strong production with some fascinating performances make this play a must see.

The time is the very late 19th century and place is Rhodesia (now known as Zimbabwe). European powers see the immense economic prospects in the country with its large mineral deposits and other natural riches. As the British gain further economic and political control over the country, they also engage in activities to ensure the conformity of the indigenous Ndebele and Shona people with their own social and religious practices, which they view as highly superior. The arrival of European missionaries to the scene, against the backdrop of complex ethno-religious tensions and other major social issues, further complicates matters of national identity.

The Convert explores how one young girl, Jekesai, (Nancy Moricette) is introduced to Christianity through this mission work. As she becomes more closely linked to Chilford (Irungu Mutu), an African man who has no greater desire than to be perceived as an influential and essential religious leader and become 'an equal' to the whites on that front, she undergoes a personal transformation and truly internalizes the Biblical lessons she's been taught. She also gets a new name - Ester. That profound transformation leaves her with some difficult decisions as to how she can balance her newfound faith with her traditional upbringing and customs, and maintain solid relations with those around her who might not share her desire to follow Christ, and only Christ, wholly and completely. Eventually her worlds collide, which leaves her to question where to go from there.

With this piece, Gurira doesn't so much explore the effects of colonial imperialism in Africa from a socio-political perspective - a subject that's oft discussed in many a book and play - as she does the impact of 'cultural' imperialism. As she explores the collision of Western and traditional patriarchal values, she gives us a story that's reminiscent of My Fair Lady where the central character asks 'who am I, where do I come from, and how do I want to be perceived?' Her mostly tight drama, complete with a powerful and determined female at the core, allows her to explore the effects of cultural change on one individual, but also allows her to examine the forces of cultural change at a more macro level.

While the play itself could use some trims and cuts here and there - particularly in Act 2 and 3 - Gurira's script is remarkably centered given the epic and complex situation it characterizes. Although there are definitely subplots, none are so superfluous that they detract attention from the central story and do well to further the themes of identity, belief, and social change that frame her play. She avoids many traps that playwrights twice her age fall into; it's a three hour play to be sure, but it's not so sprawling to the point where she leaves the audience members asking what they just witnessed. It's not a history lesson, but it's not a simplistic character-driven drama either. She melds the two nicely.

Gurira's compelling drama, the first of an intended three plays that will explore Zimbabwe, is brought to life extraordinarily well by an immensely talented cast and creative team. Director Michael John Garcés proves he's skillful at focusing the story and bringing out some solid performances from the talented cast even if there is a misstep or two.

From an acting perspective, the ladies of the cast fare better than the males, but it should be noted that the female roles are drawn much more completely than the male ones. Moricette is exquisitely adept at showing Jekesai/Ester's insatiable curiosity and desire to better herself while also showing the internal conflicts she encounters as she becomes increasingly immersed in the 'Western' world. Her charismatic and warm presence coupled with her fierce attitude make her one to watch.

Starla Benford is able to bring meld comedy and drama in her portrayal of Mai Tamba - an older mother figure to Jekesai who has been 'converted' by the missionaries, but still remains heavily committed to maintaining traditional customs and practices. She's engaging, affable, and her stage presence is undeniable. The role could become cartoonish, but she avoids that temptation. Dawn Ursula is always a treat to watch in any Woolly Mammoth show, but she rises to yet another level as Prudence, fiancé to the Chancellor (a delightfully slimy Alvin Keith) who is also engaged in efforts to bring change - whether good or bad - to Rhodesia. Prudence is an educated African woman who has 'been there done that' in terms of balancing Western ideals (though not necessarily religious ones) with tradition. Ursula has a wise air about her, but her uncanny delivery and knack for comedic and terse exchanges, makes us respect Prudence all the more.

Mutu, on the other hand, has immense stage presence and makes it very clear that Chilford is a passionate man who gives his all to everything and is quite unaccepting of alternative courses of action. Unfortunately, when he meets with conflict - not a rarity in this play - his performance can become quite histrionic and cartoonish to the point where we no longer see Chilford as a human being trying to do God's will, but a crazy imbecile who's devoid of any intellectual understanding. Perhaps there's a point to this acting (and/or directorial) choice - that he was easily swayed to join the ranks of proselytizer and lacks a full understanding of the implications of his actions - but the campy performance inhibits the audience from even caring about what drives him to do what he does. This is a necessary component to the play so it's quite unfortunate. Jaben Early (Tamba) and Erik Kilpatrick (Uncle) round out the cast and deliver compelling performances as those men, who make Jekesai question the path she's taking and represent the patriarchal norms that pervade the society of interest.

The production elements enhance the story and serve as a commendable backdrop for the strong acting. Misha Kachman's rustic set design and Helen Huang's costume design highlight the clash between the two cultures. Ryan Rumery's sound design and Colin K. Bills lighting design further provide ambience. While all of these creative elements come together in a praiseworthy way, I do question the decision to stage the show on a platform, which includes a runway of sorts. I am not sure what that design element added to conveying Gurira's story. Depending on where one sits in the intimate theatre, one could easily miss crucial scenes (including a compelling culminating one) staged at the end of the runway which extends to the back of the orchestra. Even if the person makes an attempt to turn around to view them, the sightlines are still compromised. While the inclusion of the runway does make for a pretty image from afar, the choice to use one does not seem very utilitarian.

In any case, that's just a quibble. Woolly has done justice to this ambitious piece and I, for one, am happy they have included a truly dramatic play in its season - particularly one as compelling as this.