“The Convert,” the Woolly Mammoth’s latest production takes you through a lengthy roller-coaster of emotions, but it is so worth the ride.
Written by Danai Gurira and directed by Michael John Garcés, “The Convert” takes place in Rhodesia (today called Zimbabwe) in the mid 1880’s. During this time, the English colonized the country and tried to impose its culture, traditions and religion upon the people. Some accepted the English way of life, while many “resisted.”
“The Convert” introduces us to three types of Africans comprising mid 1880’s Rhodesia: highly educated Africans who have converted to Christianity; less educated Africans who have learned English, but not necessarily converted to Christianity…or are Christian by day and traditional by night; and finally, the Africans who have refused to be colonized in any way.
We are first introduced to Jekesai (Nancy Moricette), escaping from an unwanted marriage to a much older village elder. She finds refuge in the home of her Aunt Mai Tamba’s (Starla Benford) employer, Chilford (Irungu Mutu). Chilford, an educated African, has embraced Catholicism and has come to believe the ways of the white man are superior. He takes Jekesai under his Catholic wing and renames her Ester. At first Ester is completely overwhelmed by Chilford’s home and airs. But she is a quick learner and her conversion as portrayed by Moricette is astonishing to behold. A lesser actor might make Chilford a dandy or a strident fool. Somehow Mutu manages to present him sympathetically and we find ourselves caring about him and his future.
Prudence (Dawn Ursula) is another highly educated African, a friend of Chilford and engaged to Chilford’s friend, Chancellor (Alvin Keith). One isn’t really sure what lies beneath her mannered, manicured façade until revealed in the final scenes. It’s a very complex part and Ursula is magnificent in it.
Erik Kilpatrick and JaBen Early, as Ester’s uncle and cousin Tamba respectively, represent the rebelling class in Africa…the natives who refuse to “assimilate.” Although we understand where they are coming from, they aren’t portrayed kindly (and why should they, given the situation?). These are tough roles, but the two actors handle them well.
Shockingly, “The Convert’s” three hours pass by fairly quickly. Each character is given his/her due and every morsel of dialogue is important. You find yourself thinking during the play, and you’re still thinking at the play’s end.
“With “The Convert,” not only do the characters come full circle, so does the Woolly Mammoth. Woolly’s acting is always top-notch as are most of its plays, but “The Convert” provides us with the intimacy of the old Church Street theatre, often missing from the beautiful new theatre. Part of the stage is constructed like a runway and it brings the actors closer to the audience, much like the old Woolly. The only complaint is that sometimes the actors are standing right in front of one another so that some of the audience can’t see the actors’ expressions. However, that is a small complaint in three hours worth of mind-boggling entertainment. “The Convert” is a dramatic wonder…beautifully and forcefully written and performed. It should not be missed.
Through March 10
Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St. NW