LeRoy McClain and Pascale Armand in “The Convert”
Photo by T. Charles Erickson
By Danai Gurira
Directed by Emily Mann
With Pascale Armand, Zainab Jah, Leroy McClain, Kevin Mambo, Cheryl Lynn Bruce
Kirk Douglas Theatre, Culver City (Los Angeles)
Through May 19, 2012
“It’s still the same old story, a fight for love and glory, a case of do or die …” Actually, there is more than one old story that keeps repeating itself. And none of those stories is pretty viewed up close. It matters not if you see religion as the answer to all problems; nor if you believe in the pure nobility of a native population; nor if you maintain the blind belief in the all-knowing benevolence of a government (colonial or local). The truth of these scenarios is a fantasy … like walking into the sunset and living happily ever after. Romantic love may dissolve into “jealousy and hate as time goes by;” so have blind ideology, superstition, and greed led to exploitation and bloodshed all over the globe.
Africa, it seems, has had more than its share of oppression from colonization, religious zealotry, inter-tribal bloodshed, and brutality. Playwright Danai Gurira grew up in Zimbabwe. “The Convert” takes place there between 1895 and 1897. For context and flavor there is a useful timeline in the lobby detailing the period from the 1820’s through the end of 1897. It is a tale of British missionary activity exploiting conflict between native tribes and serving as a wedge for colonization of what was to become Rhodesia. Treaties were signed binding Mashona and Matabeleland of Southern Africa to the British with the natives relinquishing all mineral rights to the British South Africa Company. Throw in taxes and pestilence that killed much of the local cattle, the British decision to kill off the remainder to stop the spread of the disease, and the native Africans became virtual slaves in their own land. Their religious leaders interpreted this act as a manifestation of their ancestors’ anger at the occupation of the British. The land was ripe for rebellion.
A few Africans flourished under the British. Chifford (LeRoy McClain), a Jesuit catechist — as a black man he will never advance to the priesthood; Chancellor (Kevin Mambo), an opportunist; and Prudence (Zainab Jah), Chancellor’s fiancée, are exceptional. They are all well educated, they speak excellent English, dress in well-tailored western clothing, and have exquisite western manners. Only Chifford is naïve enough to swallow the whole white-is-superior dogma. Unerringly devout, Jesus is his man. The Bible can preach no wrong. As a group the three look down on native Africans and become almost parodies of the colonists, though Chancellor and Prudence maintain a certain level of cynicism. Equality is a fantasy, not an option.
When Chifford’s housekeeper, Mai Tamba (Cheryl Lynn Bruce) — superficially converted but vexing to Chifford in her unwillingness to shed most of her African ways — begs Master Chifford to give her niece Jekesai (Pascale Armand) a job, Chifford reluctantly accedes. Mai Tamba’s brother has bought the 16 year-old girl for the price of some goats and the spirited Jekesai has run from him with the help of a cousin. When Chifford takes her in it is on the condition that she be immersed in Christian ways. Instantly Chifford decrees her name must be changed from her native Jekesai to Ester; just as quickly her bare breasts are draped in a high-necked, long sleeved Victorian muslin gown; she is swept into the mission ways. From Ester’s point of view, being saved from becoming the tenth wife of an old man is miracle enough. A bright and energetic young woman, she is an eager convert, a brilliant student, a true “protégée” of Master Chifford. All she needs to know is “there’s no such thing as polygamy in Catholicism” and she is fervently on board.
Playwright Gurira paints a realistic picture of colonial Zimbabwe. It is not pretty; it is not simple. There are certainly no white knights, no gallant knights of any color. The Africans are terribly exploited by the British; however within their own society women are barely a step above livestock. The Christians have substituted a wrathful Bible for superstitious ancestor worship, but they have brought reading and writing and some more enlightened ways to the Africans. It is a tinderbox, heating up. The serenity of the Missionary house (beautifully created by set designer Daniel Ostling) will be scant protection.
“The Convert” is three acts and well over two hours long. Although the first two acts could easily benefit from some editing, the audience that left before the last act missed the stirring conclusion. True, it was easy to have a sense of where this story would be going; however watching it finally get there is the dramatic payoff. Under Emily Mann’s direction the acting is uniformly good, although leaning to overacting in spots, perhaps inevitable in a drama that veers at times too close to a history lesson.
Gurira’s female characters are more fully developed than the males. In interviews she has said that it is her mission to tell the story of African women who are often overlooked in history. Pascale Armand is fresh and impassioned as the young acolyte; Cheryl Lynn Bruce injects some levity with her interpretation of the housemaid who keeps her African ways under her Christian garb. Pipe smoking, Zainab Jah brings the right swashbuckling cynicism to her role, but despite the number of times we are reminded that she has a fine education there is no explanation of how this elegant young woman, disowned by her family, sustains herself financially.
“The Convert” is a joint project of the Center Theatre Group, Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, and the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, N.J. (see video clip from the McCarter below). How one feels about it is probably more a function of what brings you to the theater. If you look for social significance, there is no doubt “The Convert” is a winner. It is hard not to generalize to current times. What will the Arab Spring bring in the end, for example? There is no question people were oppressed, but what next? If, on the other hand, you are drawn to the theater by character development, or a story arc that is unpredictable, you may be disappointed.