BWW Review: THE CONVERT mesmerizes at Frank Theatre
The Frank Theatre's production of The Convert is a gripping dramatization that explores the clash between Christianity and African tribal beliefs through the eyes of a young girl caught between the two worlds. The play, written by Danai Gurira, is a powerful take on how British Colonialism and Roman Catholicism was thrust upon a world that didn't want or even ask for it.
The Frank Theatre is known for staging works with a message and strong point-of-view. The Convert is a play that asks the audience to think about whether one religion is "better" than another, and why some religions and cultures feel it necessary to convert people who are perfectly happy as they are. During the late 1800's in Rhodesia (now known as Zimbabwe), British colonialists tried to convert many African tribal villagers to Christianity, and a resulting violent clash occurred as the Africans revolted against the white men who were trying to change them. The rioting was also directed at the "Bafa", or black traitors who had turned their backs on their culture and people in favor of the white traditions and niceties.
The play begins with a young Shona woman named Jesekei running away from her tribe because her uncle is forcing her to marry a much older man. Jesekai's aunt Mai Temba (Ivory Doublette) works for a devout black Roman Catholic missionary who agrees to take her in as a servant, as long as she proclaims her love for Jesus. She does so, unaware of who or what she is professing love for, so long as she does not have to enter a polygamous marriage. Chilford (Yinka Ayinde) teaches the newly renamed Ester to read and write, and she becomes his protégé. As the play progresses, Ester's devotion becomes real, to the point where she is willing to leave her family and culture behind.
The play is anchored by a very strong cast of actors. They are all fully committed to their characters and you can tell how hard they worked to perfect their South African accents. Each of them must also speak the Shona dialect as if it were their first language, and they do it flawlessly. Most impressive is Ashe Jaafaru, who plays Ester/Jekesai. She is magnetic in every scene - you can't take your eyes off her. Whether she is furiously explaining her almost-marriage in her Shona tongue, or even just reacting to her cousin's rageful diatribe, everything she does is focused and intentional. She makes you feel her anguish and religious fervor, even in her final moments when that fervor drives her to do something unimaginable. Every actor has moments of brilliance, and the cast works together seamlessly. The show moves along at a rapid pace (despite a long running time and three-act structure) with a dense amount of dialogue, and it is thanks to the cast that the storyline is clear and easy-to-follow.
With only one weekend of performances left (the show closes on March 15th), make room in your calendar to see this show before it ends. The Convert is a thunderous show that leaves you with lingering questions about religion, oppression and white supremacy. The themes of this show are as ever-present today as they were over a hundred years ago, and it begs the question - will we as a society ever learn from our past mistakes?
Photo Credit: Tony Nelson