In Danai Gurira’s powerful and gripping new play set in 1895 through 1897 in the region of South Africa that had recently been officially named Southern Rhodesia, an exceptionally bright, beautiful young African woman Jekesai (Pascale Armand) suddenly finds herself removed from a traditional lifestyle and thrust into a maelstrom of conflicting, life-changing conundrums. Now at McCarter Theater, where it is on the first leg of its three-theater rolling world premier (going next to the Goodman Theater in Chicago and then to the Kirk Douglas Theater, part of the Center Theater Group in Los Angeles), "The Convert" is as impressive an example of potent dramatic literature as any you are likely to experience this year.
While it centers on a very personal story in a very specific time period, it is also resolved to show us how the lives of the play’s other six arresting characters are impacted by the kinds of cultural, economic, and religious changes that often incite people to acts of rebellion and violence. Despite its action occurring more than 100 years ago, the play’s theme — the price people pay for replacing one set of religious dogmas and rituals for another while also attempting to hold on to their long-standing and familiar traditions — resonates with topicality and timeliness.
The specific location is the bustling town of Salisbury (now Harare, Zimbabwe) where the British South Africa Company under the leadership of Cecil John Rhodes (unseen, and yes, that scholarship guy), has been granted control of all commercial, mining, and legal power. But it is not only the taxes that are now being imposed upon the region’s African hut dwellers that are causing unrest.
A fertile ground for rebellion is also being tilled by the white settlers as well as by the Christian missionaries who are making unsettling inroads into the African identity, as they proceed to enforce their own ethics and morals into the culture.
Even as the region is being locked down as a British colony, Jekesai has been locked into a pre-arranged marriage by her family to an elderly man who already has 10 wives. It is the quick-thinking intervention of her Aunt Mai Tamba (Cheryl Lynn Bruce) that brings the desperate Jekesai to the home of Chilford Ndlovu (LeRoy McClain), a catechist and stalwart for the Roman Catholic Church where Mai Tamba works as his housekeeper.
With a little prodding and assurance by Mai Tamba, the naive and insecure Jekesai not only gets a refuge but is also given a new name, Ester, with the promise that she will work and study hard to be a good Christian. At the same time that Jekesai is stirred by her new-found religion, a rebellion is also stirring among the oppressed African population against the white colonists, a movement that brings her in conflict with her family including her cousin, Tamba (Warner Joseph Miller), who is increasingly resentful and disdainful of the white settlers.
But there are many divisive dynamics that play a role in Ester’s life over the next two years, including the presence of Chilford’s best friend since schooldays, Chancellor (Kevin Mambo), who has used his education to embed himself in the business community, but does so at the peril of displeasing the Africans who no longer trust him. His duplicitous nature — he has designs on Ester — is further exposed by his fiancee Prudence (Zainab Joh), who makes it quite clear that she is nobody’s fool, but more importantly is an example of how a clever and educated woman learns the ropes in this evolving society.
With respect for the sheer amount of exposition that is embedded into Gurira’s text (and much of it necessary and informing) director Emily Mann keeps the compelling action as well as the intellectually provocative interaction between the characters in balance. There is a constant build-up of harrowing events — the murder of both a white miner and a visiting Jesuit priest and a brutal assault upon Chilford in his home — that lead to another fatality and another test of faith and forgiveness, specifically how it motivates Ester, a character who we might conclude lives deeply in playwright Gurira’s race consciousness.
Gurira, who was born to Zimbabwean parents in the United States but raised in Zimbabwe, achieved an early and notable success as co-creator and co-performer in the multi-award-winning "In the Continuum." She has disclosed her intentions to make "The Convert" the beginning of a cycle of plays about Zimbabwe and its people (U.S. 1, January 11). The stringent, earthy, often funny, dialogue that propels the play is wonderfully grounded to include exchanges in the native Shona language, a conceit that proves no barrier to our understanding, nor does hearing how English idioms get a little tweak and twist (turning a mixed bag into "It has been a bag of mixtures").
It is difficult to imagine a finer cast to interpret the roles. It won’t be over praise to say that Armand is giving a memorably moving portrayal of the spiritually guided Jekesai/Ester. McClain is terrific as the uptight, rigidly religious Chilford. Bruce is splendid as the snuff-snorting Mai Tamba, who spends most of her time running interference between the new and the old ways all the while learning how to say mass and often incorrectly ("Hail Mary full of ghosts," etc.)
There is an obvious but completely charming illusion made between the way that Chilford tutors Ester in Catholicism and the way that Professor Higgins tutors Eliza on how to be a lady. More devilishly disarming is the way that Mai Tamba, who finds it hard if next to impossible to give up the old superstitious ways, pays lip service to her employer. Rage and remorse come with the territory of evocative social concerns covered by the strong performances of Harold Surratt as Jekesai/Ester’s Uncle and Miller as Tamba.
Despite its three-hour length, "The Convert" is one of those rare plays in which time hardly matters. What matters is that this is a stunning play destined to find a welcome in many regional theaters and undoubtedly beyond.
#b#"The Convert,"#/b# through Sunday, February 12, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place. $20 to $65. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.