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The Convert — Wilma Theater

ConvertInsideThe first act of Danai Gurira’s “The Convert” is positively Shakespearean.

      Conflict is immediate and palpable. Quickly developed characters confront situations that are at once tenuous and potentially life-changing. Clear, intriguing themes of absolutism vs. flexibility, new order vs. tradition, tribal loyalty vs. worldly outlook, and self-determination vs. group expectation emerge. Imperialism is introduced, as is racism. The role of identity, that you adopt and that others impose on you, becomes prime.  Language remains direct, evocative, and high-toned. Gurira crafts revealing, evolving, engrossing scenes that plunge you into a time, 1895, and a place, Southwest Africa, now Zimbabwe, that fascinate and provoke thought. Swirling concepts and ideas conspire to promise a full theatrical experience that enlightens as it involves and goes beyond absorbing entertainment to genuine art and dramatic majesty.

      Neither the play nor the grippingly intense production by Philadelphia’s Wilma Theater renege on this promise. While subsequent acts of “The Convert” fail to maintain the taut efficiency and precise focus of the opening scenes, they  illuminate a widening background, advance Gurira’s expanded story, and continue to hold interest. The play, which has three acts and takes three hours to perform, may become overloaded, take a sharp turn in its narrative path, and try audience patience a bit, but the dramatic payoff and increased understanding of its relatively unexplored topics are worth any tinge of restlessness caused by Gurira’s choice to weave every thread that occurred to her into “The Convert’s” script.  Enough of importance remains in every scene to pique curiosity and excite emotional tension, and Michael John Garces’s staging for the Wilma goes a long way towards alleviating antsy impulses by creating a consistently arresting atmosphere of portent.

     “The Convert” is accessible but complex. While the title character, Jekesai, renamed Ester by a Roman Catholic acolyte who introduces her to that faith, remains Gurira’s focal figure throughout the play, the positions, attitudes, allegiances, and beliefs of others receive detailed attention so the playwright can show how changing times in the British colonial town of Salisbury, today’s Harare, affect a range of people. Gurira becomes less concerned with telling a specific story than about presenting an overview of a transitional period in African history. Finding a way for every character to register distinctively becomes a double-edged sword. Prudence, a woman who moves from the periphery to center stage in the last act, blossoms into a marvelous, revelatory creation, the embodiment of an ideal that may never be permitted to thrive. The fate of Chancellor, or Chauncy, sets several late scenes in motion, but Gurira may assign him one too many things to do in his role of catalyst. Sometimes you’re happy Gurira took the time to make a character more multi-faceted. Other times you wish she would limit a role to key passages that would allow her to move to weightier matter more smoothly. While the first act is in perfect proportion, Gurira is not always a good judge of how much is enough in the acts that follow it. Again, “The Convert” is worth and will reward your patience.

      Jekesai arrives in Salisbury as a refugee of sorts. Her father has recently died, and by tribal custom, she is the ward of her uncle who arranges to marry her against her wishes to an old man. To help Jekesai avoid an unwanted fate, her cousin, Tamba, spirits her away from the village and takes her, bare-chested and in native garb, to the home of a missionary, also African, where his mother, Jekesai’s aunt, works as a housekeeper.

       Cultures clash immediately. Jekesai, Tamba, and the housekeeper, Mai Tamba, bicker with each other in their tribal dialect. While they are in the midst of preparing Jekesai for her new home, its owner, called Master, arrives. Chilford is a strict figure. He is dressed impeccably in British tailored clothing. While his accent retains native tones, his diction and grammar show careful practice. Chilford is a perfectionist. His home and papers are orderly, his manners genteel and beyond reproach. He lives and works among the British, and he emulates them, right down to his hat and walking stick. Chilford thinks of himself as a new African, free from tribal tradition and about to be assimilated in a larger world where Africans will claim a rightful, useful place. He is also a devout Roman Catholic who works diligently to recruit others to the faith.  His missionary work extends to having a school and making sure Africans in Salisbury are fed and sanitary. In addition, Chilford serves the British government by performing administrative tasks and translating in courts. He is every way a proper young English gentleman, a dutiful Roman Catholic, and a proud example of the breeding and European customs he espouses. If he were a Westerner, he’d easily become a bishop or a magistrate. All Chilford lacks is a sense of humor about himself and some memory and respect for his roots.

      As Chilford is trying to work and have dinner, Jekesai’s uncle comes to the door. He insists he has a tribal claim or her and demands she return with him to their village and marry the old man. Jekesai is revealed to Chilford, who listens as Jekesai, her aunt, her uncle, and her cousin argue about who will control the young woman’s future. Chilford intervenes.

He will have nothing of tribal customs. He is surprised by finding a new servant in his domicile, but as reluctant as he might be to take on Jekesai as an employee, he is determined she will not be subjected to wedding a man she does not love or want. That goes against Christian teaching and, therefore, against Chilford’s beliefs. The uncle is sent away. Jekesai is given permission to live and work in Chilford’s home, and “The Convert” is ready to show how identity and allegiance affect one’s life and, possibly, the ongoing history of the world.

      Chilford almost immediately becomes aware of Jekesai’s intelligence. He tells her about Jesus and brings her to Catholicism. Her conversion becomes the occasion for a literal change of identity. As Chilford has already christened a Mary and a Ruth, he decides on a heroic Western name for Jekesai, Ester, spelled by Gurira without the “h.” Jekesai, already versed in scripture, likes the choice.

      In Chilford’s home, in spite of the stubborn efforts of Mai Tamba, the African and European may not meet. Once one has chosen to accept British ways, one must turn his or her back towards customs and rituals with one was raised. Chilford can do this. Others can’t.

       Even those who prefer to have a foot in both cultures may be prevented by societal mores and outside prejudice from living a comfortable blend of tribal heritage and urbane refinement. As happens a lot in today’s America, many people will only accept absolute adherence to a philosophy or way of life. In “The Convert,” Chilford’s adoption of Christianity supersedes any tribal custom. When Ester is asked by her aunt and cousin to attend the traditional ceremony that marks the passing of her father’s spirit, Chilford  forbids her to go.

      Dilemmas of this kind abound in “The Convert” and provide the play with real conflict and drama. Nothing is Salisbury society is going to be as pure and clear-cut as Mai Tamba’s trusting the tribal way or Chilford’s all-inclusive embrace of Catholicism. Changes means mixture. It requires adaptation. Even if examples of such change are evident on the surface, Gurira is clear that the attitudes and good will that foment a genuine revolution in thought, action, and progress are not present in 1895 Salisbury. Southwest Africa will not propel itself into a new, acceptingly diverse, multi-cultural world. Forces against such Utopian notions are way too embedded, way too strong.

       Even within cultures and religions, schisms erupt. The relationship between natives to Southwest Africa and the Europeans who come to govern, claim ancestral farmland, run mines, and oversee other natural resources begin with suspicion and become thornier and thornier. Equal to issues of ownership, justice, and rule is plain, out-and-out racism that runs in both directions. Europeans regards the Africans as inferior and in need of government. Chilford, Chancellor, Prudence, Ester, and others who assimilate learn they are foolish if they think the British and others accept them with egalitarian good fellowship. Black remains black. White remains white. More threatening, many Africans are disdainful of neighbors who are too closely aligned to Europeans or prone to adopt their habits. When violence strikes, blacks who embrace European fashions and lifestyles will not be immune. The Europeans will be no more merciful or understanding when it comes to true acceptance or sparing someone’s dignity, or even someone’s life, if that someone is of a different race.

       The Salisbury Jekesai finds in 1895 is one that is in the flurry of transition but stubbornly committed to maintaining separation of classes and races. It is Victorianism that comes to Africa, and that can be as strict and absolute as any Roman Catholic doctrine or tribal obligation. More tellingly,  because it is so engrained in the history of civilization from the big bang to today, identity, even an identity like Prudence’s that felicitously embraces a variety of cultures and beliefs, is the ultimate obstacle because adherence to identity, often more sentimental than heartfelt, causes people firmly and resolutely to reject difference and, therefore to reject change or, at least, to keep it from coming to full, positive  blossom.

       Gurira is determined to fit all of Salisbury’s upheavals of this late 19th century society into one play, She manages it, but sometimes by cramming and often by giving too long attention to a point she’s made and the audience is ready to move past. No flaws can mar Gurira’s overall achievement. “The Convert” is remarkable play, dramatically and texturally.  It epic scope, historical perspective, vivid characters, and engrossing story earn forgiveness for any trespasses. Too little of “The Convert’s” quality and intelligence is being written today. The Wilma production, living up to the play’s virtues, cries out to be seen while you have the chance.

       That’s because Garces lovingly keeps the tone and pace of his staging intense and suspenseful. From the outset, as Jekesai, in light that accents and give a golden cast to her brown skin, is seen bare-breasted, laden with tribal amulets, and wearing  a ragged skirt, a mood of importance is struck. You know this figure, this character, is the subject of a moving story, and you are eager to be acquainted with it.

        Dramatic intensity permeates the Wilma. You can feel it. Garces and his actors draw you to the stage no matter what the emotional level of a scenes is. Passages where characters explain their points of view or talk about their lives are as riveting and as strikingly presented as sequences of conflict or outright violence. Garces and company cast a spell that brings Gurira’s fascinating play to vibrant theatric and intellectual life. Even the bits that go on too long rate strict attention. “The Convert” commands your attention, and the Wilma ensemble makes sure that attention will be undivided. Included in the kudos are set designer Mikhail Kachman, who makes the single setting of Chilford’s home so versatile and who is so clever in accomplishing a mid-production redesign Gurira’s script necessitates; costume designer Helen Huang, who moves deftly between native garb, Victorian frippery, and the modest dress Ester is given once she becomes Chilford’s religious protégé; and especially lighting designer Colin K. Bills, whose evocative lighting is almost like an extra character, always commenting perfectly on the mood and circumstance of the play.

       The Wilma’s cast for “The Convert” is uniformly superb. Nancy Moricette, as Jekesai/Ester, is as articulate with her expressions as she is with her purposeful voice. As Jekesai, she conveys confusion and intelligence. You see the fire that motivated her to run away from her uncle’s influence as well as the commitment that will make her, as Ester, an indispensable helper to Chilford. Moricette’s face tells you her conflicts before her dialogue does. Ester is a woman who can be certain and conflicted from one minute to the next, and sometimes simultaneously. The title, “The Convert,” can refer to several characters, but you know it centers on Jekesai/Ester because she is the one who has made the most stunning change, she is the one who has to contend most with the traditions of her heritage challenging the tenets of an adopted faith and the culture that seems to come with it.

        Moricette’s earnestness and dignity supply the core of the Wilma’s production. The actress is the lead player and lives up to that responsibility in a way that gives Garces’s staging heart that sets up the individual dramas of all “The Convert’s” characters.

        Irungu Mutu’s Chilford is propriety itself. Mutu could have stepped intact from a play by George Bernard Shaw or a novel by John Galsworthy, he is that much the picture of the classic English gentleman. Mutu captures Chilford’s rigidity as a true believer as well as the pride he takes as a helper to the British court and as a man who runs a tight, orderly home. Chilford is a dedicated worker, one who reads and prepares. He is also an activist who makes positive things happen, especially for his fellow Africans living in Salisbury. Mutu embodies all of this. His rectitude, even when he is forced, often against his will, to use tribal language or take physical action, is as absolute as his principles and his strict application of them.

        Zainab Jah is so wonderfully authentic as Prudence, I wanted to take her home so I could spend more time with her. Prudence is a character it takes time to love. She is a Southwest African, as knowledgeable of her native tradition of anyone, who has become the embodiment, in diction and manner, of the perfect Victorian woman. Gwendolyn Fairfax, how do you do? At first, Prudence comes off as a snob and a possible fake. Jah is canny in the airs and foibles she lends to the character. As “The Convert” progresses, you see Prudence is the most evolved of any character. Within herself, she has been able to assimilate the niceties of Western culture while never denying or forgetting her heritage. Prudence is the sum of all of her parts and more because she can draw on the resources required from any of them. As haughty as Chilford, she relaxes more within her skin and can be witty and appreciate a joke, even one at her expense. Crossed, she is as fierce as Tamba. Jah makes all of this visible and charming. Best of all, she reveals Prudence in correctly measured doses, so the characters turns from a novelty to a delightful surprise. If all of civilization could combine traits and influences as well as Prudence does, the world would be a peaceful, charming place. Jah’s performance inspires such throughts. She is a gem.

        Lance Coadie Williams is another who shows wide range as he brings the complex Chauncy to life. If Chilford is Shavian, Chauncy is Dickensian. He is a man who loves the trappings of the British club, an expansive man who enjoys the whisky and cigars and lavish lifestyle his association with the British colonial authority provides. Chauncy is the ultimate man about town, the one who loves politics and rewards. He is also successful in business and manages the mines the imperialists have co-opted. Williams plays all of Chauncy’s practicality and bonhommie. He is the shadiest character, but you admire his bravura. That is, until the character’s amoral side is seen rather than reported.

        As the members of Jekesai’s family, Starla Benford, Joshua E. Nelson, and Steven Wright all add to the intensity and luster of Garces’s production. Nelson is especially strong as the cousin who is committed to Ester, even as she disappoints him by turning her back on tribal custom, and equally dedicated to asserting the rights and claims of Salisbury’s native population. Nelson captures the youth of Tamba as well as the single-minded call to action often found in the young. Benford blends wit, dignity, and passion in her portrayal of Mai Tumba. Wright is sly but firm as the uncle who is the least prepared or willing to assimilate.

        “The Convert” may be the most important production to come to the Philadelphia area this year. Please do not miss it.

           “The Convert” runs through Sunday, November 10 at the Wilma Theatre, Broad and Spruce Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 6:30 Tuesday, October 22 and November 5, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Saturday, Sunday, and Wednesday, November 6. Tickets range from $66 to $35 and can be ordered by calling 215-546-7824 or going online to www.wilmatheater.org.

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This entry was posted on October 20, 2013 by in Theater Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , .

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