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 fiancée 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:

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