BWW Review: A Battle of Beliefs in Danai Gurira's THE CONVERT at Central Square Theatre
In a blackout we hear shouting. The front door of a minister's house is kicked opened. Enter a man dragging in a native woman wearing rags. He hands her off to the housekeeper. The housekeeper barks a few commands and forces her into a back room. The opening scene of Underground Railway Theatre's must see production of The Convert, Danai Gurira's three hour intoxicating drama about 19th century Africa post-colonialism, is spoken in the native language of Shona. Although Shona is not commonly spoken in America, it is clear what we just witnessed. Freedom. Or so we believe.
Set against the backdrop of the British Rhodesia Colonization in present day Zimbabwe, The Convert addresses the importance of traditions and the derailment of progress occurring to a group of people when suddenly under new management. Danai Gurira's play mixes broad strokes of South Africa's tumultuous history and fine point lines of human drama with witty comedy peppered ontop. Often called "an African Pygmalion," Danai Gurira sculpts her play from the George Bernard Shaw structure where intelligent exchanges of opinions make up the onstage action. However, Gurira takes it in a much different (ie:bloody) direction in the plays second and third acts. Gurira's powerful play is loaded with rich dialogue and knockout monologues for every character.
Shortly after the foreign language opening moment, the play turns to english when we meet Chilford, the westernized African catechist whose house sets the story. We learn that the young woman in rags is Jekesai (Adobuere Ebiama). Jekesai's father passed away and her Uncle, now the family patriarch, wants to arrange a marriage for Jekesai to a man with several wives. Seeking refuge, Jekesai's cousin, Tamba (Ricardy Charles Fabre) brings her to Chilford for protection.
In shock at the idea of polygamy, Chilford takes responsibility for Jekesai and forbids the release of her to such an unholy man. He offers to protect her from the marriage if she accepts his offer to become civilized through biblical studies. Unbeknownst in that moment, Jekesai begins on a transformation that has her making the challenging decision of choosing family or freedom. What unfolds on stage for the next three acts is a high stakes battle about the consequences from making such a decision.
Chilford changes her name to Ester, a more Christian name, and puts her to work as his housekeeper in lieu of tuition. Ester quickly learns the scripture and together they begin on their mission of turning natives away from their pagan beliefs. Ester's next decision comes when the other native housekeeper, Mai Tamba (Liana Asim) invites Ester to participate in a pagan ceremony. Chilford rejects this and after a battle of beliefs, more or less convinces Ester to, once again, choose her newfound Christianity.
There is obvious disdain held towards Christianity from some of the natives due to the colonizing of the country. Mai Tamba believes Christianity is a white man's religion and Africans have no business following its practices. Chilford, his friend Chancellor (Equiano Mosieri) and Chancellor's fiance Prudence (Nehassais DeGannes) all look up at the white men as superior and have been transformed into westerners down to their eloquent dialects. The audience watches from the different vantage points embodied in the onstage characters as they debate choosing to accept or reject the British way.
Directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian, The Convert sets the bar so high for Boston professional theatre that it is unfair for anything else slated to open this season. Sandberg-Zakian's command of Gurira's script is so muscular that the final product is satisfying to an audience seeking taut, powerful and thought-provoking theatre.
The combination of an excellent script with precise direction is any actor's dream. The outstanding cast of seven elevates the vision of the director and playwright. Maurice Emmanuel Parent as Chilford delivers the strongest performance of the evening. Emmanuel Parent unearths the subtleties of his character's humor which would have been lost by any less of an actor due to the character's front-and-center chronic anxiousness. Nehassaiu deGannes as the elegantly spoken Prudence has a laser sharp focus on her character's journey. deGannes craft makes her smaller early scenes in act one memorable and gut wrenching third act finale devastating.
Gurira's universal message of transformation and lost identity sheds the facade of being an unrelatable story for 21st Century Americans. The Charleston Church massacre involving a Rhodesian flag wearing terrorist, reminds us of the institutionalized consequences caused from a war over a century old. A presidential election full of conservative candidates whose policies are disassociated with the best interests of all American's show us how the ideals of subjugation are still hotly debated. Underground Railway Theatre fearlessly takes on a lot in The Convert and accomplished best is making the audience aware how familiar the unfamiliar can be.
The Convert runs until February 28, 2016 at the Central Square Theatre in Cambridge, MA. For tickets and additional information, visit their website.