There’s nothing wrong with Danai Gurira’s new drama
The Convert, now at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre, about the clash of indigenous and imposed religions in developing South Africa at the end of the 19th Century. But some judicious trimming of the three-act work would make it even more tough-minded.
In keeping with an agreed-upon marriage contract, Jekesai (Pascale Armand) is to be given to an elder as wife number 10 by her uncle (Harold Surratt). Looking to spare the young girl this fate, her aunt, Mai Tamba (Cheryl Lynn Bruce), introduces the (bare-breasted) girl to Chilford Ndlovu (LeRoy McClain), a fervent local catechist and the man for whom Mai Tamba keeps house.
Claiming Jekesai is interested in converting to Catholicism, Mai Tamba convinces Chilford to harbor Jekesai, whom he renames Ester. In a matter of months, Ester, now prim in floor-length dresses, has learned English and is so taken with her new religion that she’s bringing in converts herself.
Not everyone is conviced, notably Mai Tamba’s son, Tamba (Warner Joseph Miller), who carries on a juicy theatrical debate with Ester about the pluses and minuses of the traditions to which they both profess loyalty. Since each points out the weaknesses, not to say the by-product evils, of their respective faiths, this is where Gurira establishes the uneasy grounds on which the rest of her piece rests.
Having done her research, Gurira — who intends this play to be the first in a Zimbabwean cycle — knows that not only Christianity was imported to the area during the period but also imposed was oppression of the Shona-speaking natives. They could too easily be gulled into working for meager wages and under deleterious conditions–until rebellion was their only outlet and the result on all sides was brutality and wanton killings.
Through Gurira’s second and third act, confrontations along those lines engage the characters — including Chilford’s best friend Chancellor (Kevin Mambo) and the well-dressed, well-spoken, cynical Prudence (Zainab Jah) — in a destructive vortex.
And the play’s conclusion — a dramatic dilly that makes the fade-out less than entirely uplifting — seals Gurira’s point that too frequently more harm than good is done in religion’s name and that the wise know not to figure out who they are through blind subordination to any one faith.
Emily Mann helms the production with all due intensity, while the entire ensemble
— grabbing at their roles on Daniel Ostling’s somber set as if at a steak-eating competition — have no trouble making converts of their audience.