McCarter Theater presents the premiere of The Convert, written by Danai Gurira, and directed by Emily Mann. It was the winner of the 2011 Stavis Award and the Edgerton Foundation New American Plays Award. The opening night was a full house, and with good reason. This riveting story is set in the late 1890s in the new colony of Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). British missionaries were converting natives into Catholics. This story unfolds as a catechist named Chilford (LeRoy McClain) is influening locals into abandoning their traditions, and adopting Western culture and religion, including taken on biblical names. The Convert is best described as a Zimbabwean version of Pygmalion in three acts. There is even an equivalent to Colonel Pickering named Chancellor (Kevin Mambo), who’s occasionally joined by his fiancé Prudence (Zainab Jah).
The theater’s space is put to good use in the beginning of the first scene. Jekesai and her cousin Tamba, (Pascale Armand and Warner Joseph Miller respectively), come running around the perimeter of the theater, down an aisle and into Chilford’s home on stage, where Jekesai’s Aunt Mai Tamba (Cheryl Lynn Bruce) works. Jekesai’s reaction to being in a house made with textures in which she’s unfamiliar is priceless. The entire play takes place in Chilford’s living room, yet you never feel trapped in the location. Chilford, agrees to take in his housekeeper’s niece, who is escaping a forced marriage to Uncle (Harold Surratt) based on cultural practices. Besides having an extra set of hands to keep house, Chilford has another native to convert into a Christian, and he starts by renaming her Ester.
Ms. Armand is such a gifted actress, noticeable as she transitions to living a completely foreign lifestyle. This is such a powerful play, with a uniquely engrossing script, and very strong acting. I love how the weight of this script is nicely balanced with strategic comic relief. The cast will impress you with their ability to speak the native language, and in English with an accent, which along with their costumes and the set, will transport you to Salisbury (now Harare). You will be able to understand the gist of the conversation due to the actors’ expressive gestures despite the use of a foreign language, and you’ll still connect with the characters.
Emily Mann has the ability to find the most amazing pieces to share with our community. This production definitely lives up to the high expectations we have of her in all capacities.
I don’t want to give anything away, but I will tell you that there is a civil uprising against the colonial white rule. There’s also a moving scene that will bring some people to tears, so bring your Kleenix just in case.
The Convert is three hours long with two 10 minute intermissions. There are two scenes with partial nudity, but it’s appropriate for ages 14 and up. I highly recommend seeing this play, especially if you enjoy substantial dramas. I know the audience I saw this performance with equally loved it, since EVERYONE simultaneously gave the cast a standing ovation! It’s THAT good!
UPDATE: Below is the trailer.