With The Convert, Danai Gurira proves that, in this shorter-is-sweeter era, three act plays can draw a packed house. Set in the 1890’s in what was then known as Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, Gurira’s characters each grapple, in achingly believable ways, with the effects of white British colonial rule and the enforcement of Christian dogma.
A talented young writer with an old soul, Gurira herself has a culturally ambidextrous sensitivity – raised in Zimbabwe, while being fully steeped in America, birth home for her formative years. Gurira asks, “Who are you?” when outsiders impose strange rites and instill new customs on your indigenous population? What happens when a conquered, nearly vanquished people must submit to survive while secretly holding onto vestiges of the old ways? How is it different when the colonialists leave and the brutality of self-rule delivers as much devastation, corruption and waste as before?
Gurira wrestles with these questions that extend beyond Africa and into the wider world as people are caught in the strangle hold of alliances and allegiance, where centuries-old traditions and tribal customs clash with modernism, indoctrination, cultural annihilation and eradication.
Jekesai (Nancy Moricette) escapes straight out of the interior bush, resplendent in a wrap-around brown burlap cloth skirt, ceremonial coiled bracelets and necklace, bare-foot and oh, bare-breasted, too. She wears her semi-nudity with grace and ease and doesn’t even seem nearly naked as she pokes around the aging threadbare furnishings of the once elegant house. She marvels at the light from the chandelier like it’s magic and once “properly clothed” in household attire, crouches in front of the powerful Chancellor who can change her life with the wave of his hand.
Chilford, who aspires to be accepted by whites and appointed as the first black priest, is on the verge of sending her away from his house, back to be bartered off as a child bride for the price of goats, but is heartened by her zeal for the Bible, salvation, and her squeal of delight at the prospect of serving “Jee-sus” as a newly minted Christian. With entreaties from Mai Tamba, his housekeeper, he overrules the tribal tradition, and allows her to stay to help with household chores, on the condition that she go to school to learn to be a Christian, re-naming the young woman Ester.
That first scene sets up all of the elements that will percolate up and eventually bubble over as the black fragmented social system collides with native tradition, seething resentment and, ultimately, rebellion.
There is simply no stopping Gurira as she depicts aspects of all of these dynamics in her powerful script, just as there’s no end to director Michael John Garcés’ creativity in portraying them. No stranger to piercingly honest character quests, (Oedipus El Rey was his previous directing project at Woolly) he knows how to bring their decision points to life, as he most certainly does here, bringing out both the drama and the humor in Gurira’s script.
Nancy Moricette is stunning as Jekesai/Ester, carefully crafting Ester’s turning away more and more from the old-ways. A quick study, Ester learns and recites biblical passages with ease and takes on Christian beliefs with a passion and zeal that’s almost palpable, much to the delight of Chilford, played with earnest care by Irungu Mutu.
In contrast to Ester’s serious pursuit to be indoctrinated into the Christian way, her loving aunt Mai Tamba, played with a flourish by the remarkable Starla Benford, pays lip-service to the creed, mumbling the bumbling the recitations yet filling the house with festering animal remnants to ward of evil spirits. Tamba’s character mimics the vestments of the faith while her soul remains deeply rooted in her native ways when no one is watching.
In one of the several deeply moving passages in the play, Ester must decide whether she’ll return to the village with Tamba for an important family and tribal ritual or remain on the compound. Her decision is a testament to her indoctrination into the faith and the manifestation is beautifully staged by the director to end Act One.
Without a white colonialist in sight, the mantle has been passed on to a select few who carry on the mannerisms of an upper class, wielding power, lording over the “natives,” and decrying their “savagery,” only to have the tables turned as rebellion and revolt come close to home.
Alvin Keith struts around as Chancellor with his finery and entitlement, sneering about the lowly savages, only to revert to their mannerisms when the revolt reaches his doorstep.
Dawn Ursula plays Prudence, his intended, cloaked in the high-falutin’ fine lace and accoutrements of the dearly departed British colonists, complete with her parasol and taste for tea. Prudence is a complex, highly educated woman who has settled to get the best that she can out of life’s crumbs and secretly hopes that some justice will emerge out of the wretchedness.
Closes March 10, 2013
Woolly Mammoth Theatre
641 D St NW
3 hours, 10 minutes with 2 intermissions
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Set design is by Misha Kachman, and the always reliable Helen Huang reflects the conflicted cultural alliances in the costumes with the tribal chief Uncle wearing native cloth attire on the bottom with an old worn, likely discarded jacket on top for a striking yet nuanced contrast.
Just as in previous Danai Gurira showings (In the Continuum and Eclipsed) at Woolly, opening night was packed with standing room only. There’s a reason why sensible people living busy lives would take the time to stand for a three-hour play. It’s that powerful and that good.
The Convert by Danai Gurira . Directed by Michael John Garcés . Featuring Dawn Ursula, Starla Benford, Nancy Moricette, Irungu Mutu, JaBen Early, Alvin Keith, and Erik Kilpatrick. Creative team: set design: Misha Kachman, costume design: Helen Huang, lighting design: Colin K. Bills, sound design:Ryan Rumery. Dialect coach: Kim James-Bey, dramaturg: John M. Baker, production stage manager: Kristy Matero. Produced by Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company . Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson.
Michael John Garcés on directing The Convert
— Michael John Garcés returns to DC to direct red, black and GREEN: a blues by the powerful story performer Marc Bamuthi Joseph at Atlas Performing Arts Center, May 10 – 12.
Alexis Victoria Hauk . DCist
Bob Mondello . City Paper
Sophie Gilbert . Washingtonian
Gary Tischler . Georgetowner
Amanda Gunther . DCMetroTheaterArts
Susan Berlin . Talkin’Broadway
Peter Marks . Washington Post
Jennifer Perry . BroadwayWorld
Robert Michael Oliver . MDTheatreGuide
Eve Tushnet . American Conservative
Harry M. Bagdasian says
THE CONVERT is a thoroughly engaging evening of theatre. Danai Gurira has woven a fascinating story and the ensemble with subtle guidance by director Michael John Garcès is simply outstanding. Not a happy story, but an engrossing one due to the writer, director and actors creating and maintain a captivating “world of the play.” Pardon me if I gush – it is just not that often that such an honestly written and performed play has swept me away as this one did. Not since THE BLACK WATCH came to DC from Scotland have I witnessed a piece of theatre that still gives me chills when I recall moments in the story – even a week later. It’s fascinating to watch when actors share the stage with level intensity such as this company did the other night. Nancy Moricette as Jekesai is particularly fascinating to watch because of how she listens … I mean she listens so differently in Act I than in Act 3 …. a wonderfully subtle difference from when she’s a sponge and when she is burdened with secrets– really fascinating. The other women in the cast also bring fine subtle detail to their performances. The guys are great, too, don’t misunderstand me, but the women – Starla Benford as Mai Tamba and Dawn Ursula as Prudence –were particularly fine. The three character who are “converts” to the British ways – played by Alvin Keith, Dawn Ursula and Irungu Mutu do a fascinating job depicting Africans taking care to mirror the British ways, and Erik Kilpatrick & JaBen Early play men who stick to their “native ways” and do so with highly engaging integrity. Ms. Moricette, of course, portrays both and, at the conclusion of her story arc, she just breaks your heart. The design team should also be mentioned for their excellent work and for their fine, subtle touches with light, sound, props and setting.