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A CurtainUp Review
Over three hours long and only the first offering in author Danai Gurira’s cycle of historical dramas about Zimbabwe, The Convert is an endurance feat for actors and audience. Newly remounted at Goodman Theatre by Emily Mann, it’s a tour-de-force that blends history with histrionics. Ultimately, it delivers a powerful look at colonialism as a national identity crisis, ravaging the native population’s sense of self, past, and purpose: One person’s choices ignite history as it happens.
The title character is anguished Jekesai, a young girl who in 1895 fatally embraces Roman Catholicism and changes her name to Ester. The conversion helps her to escape a forced marriage with an ugly elder, inflicted by her “pagan” uncle and cousin. Newly minted Ester falls under the influence of Chilford, a would-be Catholic priest who tells her Jesus will cure all confusion. Now a stalwart citizen of Salisbury (present-day Harare), Chilford will teach his “protégée” English, and she will become a servant in a nearby white estate and help in the church school, exchanging her native garb for the white gown of an acolyte.
But Ester’s alienation only increases as she meets Prudence, a woman so well educated that her family has disowned her, and Chancellor, a patriarchal local and collaborator with the British occupiers (headed by Cecil Rhodes). Chilford, Prudrence and Chancellor and, by implication, Ester are now considered traitors or “bakus” by the tribe they left behind. Representing the discredited “savage” and “animist” villagers repudiated by the likes of Chilford are Mai Tamba, Chilford’s housekeeper and Ester’s aunt, Tamba, her warrior cousin and a self-appointed “son of the soil,” and Uncle, who curses his niece’s rejection of the old ways.
Nothing good can come from a world where, whatever the religion, women are chattels, their worth measured in cattle, and neither prayers to Jesus nor invocations to the ancestors can change the powerlessness of the Zimbabwean people. So in 1897 a Ndebele tribal rebellion triggered by the natives’ fury over the Rinderpest epidemic, which has decimated their herds (and which is blamed on the whites) and is headed by Shona Chief Makoni, brings death directly into Chilford’s supposed sanctuary—and finally to the white estate of Ester’s employers. Ester must choose between blood and nurture and between concealing a crime or reverting to Jekesai, the girl whose world seemed so certain before she joined an alien cult.
Playwright Gurira is adept at fleshing out culture clashes and identity crises, concentrated into this tug of war over Ester’s soul. Nothing feels abstract in a plot that verges from melodramatic intensity to operatic excess. Pascale Armand’s tortured Ester, like Eliza Dolittle, is very much a fish out of water, caught between two worlds until she can finally commit to one. LeRoy McClain gives righteous Chilford enough Christian humility and human doubt to make his conversion a test of faith we all can feel.
Despite the play’s odd mix of contrived revelations and editorializing exposition, powerful support comes from Cheryl Lynn Bruce as a proud pagan, Harold Surratt and Warner Joseph Miller as her unreconstructed polygamist relatives, Zainab Jah as proto-feminist Prudence, and Kevin Mambo as the arrogant and doomed nabob Chancellor.
The ugly lesson The Convert preaches to the “future” remains: Accommodation with whites only imposes a different discrimination— -but resistance is equally futile. Sadly, little has changed: When whites are no longer the evildoers, Zimbabwe dictator Robert Mugabe continues to blame the ex-colonizers for his broken nation’s rampant starvation, inflation, land theft, dying economy and persecution of minorities