Wednesday, January 25, 2012

theatre review THE CONVERT, McCarter Theatre, January 15

Danai Gurira's new play The Convert is having it's World Premiere at the McCarter Theatre this month.  It is a play that is set over a hundred years ago when Christian missionaries were in what is now Zimbabwe and were converting the locals to Christianity.  The play shows the struggle between the way of the natives and the English Christian views in an intimate way, focusing on it's impact on seven characters. 

The play effectively takes you back to a different time and place and the ensemble cast instills their characters with the appropriate amount of emotional context and emotional pull between the way they were raised and what some of them see in how Western values are the refined way of the future.  The conflict between these at times very opposing views and its connection to the uprising against the colonial structure by the African tribes that is taking place just a couple of hundred miles away is what makes the play at times a riveting and emotional one.  It also accurately shows the good and bad on both sides as well as how people hold to their native customs while others relish their new found beliefs.

Cheryl Lynn Bruce and Pascale Armand
At the center of the play is Jekesai, the title character who is a young Rhodesian woman.  She comes to the home of Chilford, an African missionary, brought there by her aunt who works for him as his maid, as a way to get her away from an arranged marriage to a man much older then she is.  The aunt claims her niece is there to be converted and Chilford wastes no time in changing her name to Ester and teaching her in the ways of the bible.  She is his number one convert and also his protege.  Pascale Armand as Esther perfectly captures the confusion a woman who doesn't know much English displays when being confronted by such a change, but as the play proceeds she not only understands the language but embraces it and the Christian views she is being taught.  She even becomes something of a missionary herself.

The rest of the cast is just as good.  LeRoy McClain as Chilford has the appropriate demeanor and actions of an African man who sees the good in Christianity as he actively tries to convert the locals but also makes no effort to hide his views against what be believes is the backward ways of his people, something that isn't exactly the Christian thing to do.  He has cut his ties to his people and hopes to become a Jesuit priest, something that no African man has yet become.  The aunt, Mai Tamba, is perfectly played by Cheryl Lynn Bruce in a performance so grounded that you know instantly where this woman is coming from by simple actions she does and facial expressions she makes. 

Harold Surratt, Warner Joseph Miller,
McClain, Armand and Bruce
Chancellor (Kevin Mambo) is a missionary friend of Chilford, who is also a womanizer and is more drawn to the power and money that being aligned with the whites brings.  This provides much conflict in his relationship with Chilford as well as to Chancellor's fiancĂ©e Prudence (Zainab Jah.)    Mambo is the perfect mix of power and greed and it was interesting to see him in this play after seeing him as the lead in the Broadway musical Fela, also based in South Africa, a few seasons back.  Jah is a gem as Prudence.  She doesn't seem to mind about Chancellor's womanizing ways as she is drawn to what she perceives as the perfect ways of the Western world- even having acquired a taste for pipe smoking.  However, it quickly becomes apparent that an African woman really has no place in the white male Western world, unless you are a servant.  Both Jah, Armand and Bruce all realize this, though they try to fight against it as best as they can in order to find their place in their world.

While there is some humor in the first half of the play, the second half veers toward more serious elements.  Fortunately the comic moments in the first half never seem unnatural and help ease some of the tension that comes later.  McCarter Artistic Director Emily Mann directs the production and the fact that the entire play takes place in Chilford's living room, and you never once feel trapped there, is because of Mann's superb direction and the often riveting story.  A simple set design by Daniel Ostling and costumes by Paul Tazewell combine to transport you back more than 100 years ago.

At three hours long, it could be a very long night in the theatre, but the time moves swiftly and there really isn't much fat that could be trimmed from the play to get it to a shorter length.  In fact, when most modern plays seem to be sticking close to the one act, under two hour length, it is nice to see a fully fleshed out play where there isn't a lot of extraneous material to get in the way.  The fact it doesn't seem a long play is as much a result of the playwright as it is in the superb direction of Mann.

 The Convert is a rich, deep, emotional play that warrants future productions.  This is a play that will make you think, not only when the play is over but several days later as well.  The Convert is running at the McCarter through February 12th before moving to the Goodman Theatre in Chicago and then on to the Center Theater Group in Los Angeles.

McCarter Website

Comments from the director and playwright:

Opening Night footage:

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

theatre review THE MOUNTAINTOP, Broadway, January 3

Last night we took the journey to The Mountaintop and what a journey it was.  The fictionalized play that represents Martin Luther King, Jr's last night before he is assassinated, is a two character piece that isn't at all what it first appears to be.  With Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett as the leads, it also has plenty of Hollywood star power.

Katori Hall's play, that also happened to have won the Olivier Award for Best New Play in London in 2009, takes place the evening of April 4, 1968 at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis.  The next day Dr. King would be shot dead outside the hotel, but this evening finds him tired from the speech he has just given, restless and alone but fortunately he finds someone to talk to when the hotel maid brings him a pot of coffee.

Samuel L. Jackson
Jackson doesn't really look like King, but he has the actions, speech and demeanor of him.  The play represents him as an "everyman" what with his bad habit of smoking, lapses into womanizing and even his smelly feet.  In doing so, the play tries to depict King as someone who is just like us, and the play basically achieves that goal.  However, the bits and pieces of speeches that King delivers instantly make him rise above any thought of him being a simple "everyman."  Jackson is making his Broadway debut with this role and while he has had various other stage credits before it is a perfect part for him to show a more quiet side that he doesn't always get to display in the various movies he's made.  His performance is simply understated, never showy or out of character with perfect touches of the range of emotions, from fear to happiness, which adds a nice dimension to the man that we all believe King truly was.

Angela Bassett
Bassett as the maid has a tough part to tackle as she is basically all over the place.   Some people might think she is over acting or mis-directed, but to me she perfectly captures the various ways someone would react when coming in contact with someone like King.   When you add to this the fact that her character isn't at all what she first appears to be it better explains many of the actions her character makes.  She also has two major monologues, one about 30 minutes into the show and the other towards the very end, that get huge applause from the audience.  The first is a sermon she creates that is hilariously peppered with obscenities and the second is a sermon of a whole other nature, delivered in an almost rap-like fashion that, when combined with the set and projection design almost becomes an out of body experience.

I don't want to give too much of the play away except to say that it has a lovely theatricality to it, something that can never be achieved in a film or on tv and something that can really only be experienced as a live experience.  The ending of the play makes you really think about your role in the world and how we are all ultimately connected even by a simple action we can make and also made me think about what would I do if I somehow found out that I was going to die the next day.

The Mountaintop is playing through January 22nd.

Official Show Site