Wilma’s The Convert looks at the effect of colonialism and Christianity in 1895 South Africa; Nancy Moricette (center) plays the titular convert Jekesai, with Irungu Mutu (left) as Minister Chilford and Lance Coadie Williams as the Chancellor.
I see a lot of theater, and sometimes even good shows lose their vividness in my memory within a day or two. But The Convert is different. I can’t stop thinking about Danai Gurira’s powerful, provocative play, now on stage at the Wilma in a sensational production that’s shared with Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, D.C. If anything, The Convert grows in stature as I think about it — as I have, every day since I saw it.
This is all the more impressive because Gurira, who is also a successful actress, is relatively new to what I expect will be a distinguished writing career. Yet The Convert in many ways is a reminder of an earlier, grander tradition of theater. It’s a three-act play (running time approaches 190 minutes, including two intermissions) that’s blissfully free of gimmicks. There’s no narrator, no self-consciously clever shifts of timeline, no surprising and implausible red herrings. Gurira, confident in the power of what she has to say, simply allows her characters to tell the story. (Even when they occasionally tell it in Shona, a South African language, we almost magically find ourselves understanding without any trouble.)
And what a compelling story! It’s set in 1895 in Salisbury, South Africa (now Harare, Zimbabwe), a world locked in the profound cultural conflict of colonialism — some of it religious, some of it racial. The titular convert is a young black Shona woman named Jekesai who is taken in by a black missionary named Chilford, a practicing (make that proselytizing) Roman Catholic and very much the elegant Victorian gentleman. It’s implied that his religious affiliation has aided his upward mobility, and Chilford is ambitious for more — specifically, he wants to become a priest. Though such a career is unlikely for a black African, Chilford knows that his work with Jekesai, whom he has rechristened as Ester and who is proving very effective at converting others herself, may hold the key to his success.
Their relationship is the core of The Convert, and, like everything else about this play, it’s complicated. Is Chilford motivated by generosity or self-interest? Does Jekesai/Ester embrace Catholicism because she believes it, or because it’s the only certain way of protecting herself? Audiences are likely to debate these points long after the curtain has come down. Gurira commits to nuance throughout The Convert, and not only in her characters. The larger story of an Africa torn asunder by violent political struggle is similarly detailed and complex.
From what I’ve written, you may have concluded that The Convert is worthy, but doctrinaire. Trust me, it’s not — it’s riveting, and perhaps surprisingly, it’s often very funny. Much of the first act is cleverly reminiscent of Shaw’s Pygmalion, in which another male authority figure with, shall we say, questionable motives, “transforms” a female protégé. (Director Michael John Garcés’ superb production underscores this comparison with the luxurious archness of Chilford’s social circle.) In fact, I was reminded of Shaw many more times by the themes of religious conversion and its motivations that are as central to Major Barbara and Saint Joan as they are to The Convert.
The seven actors give marvelously rich, committed performances. There’s not a weak link among them, but special honors go to Starla Benford as Mai Tamba, Jekesai’s aunt and Chilford’s housekeeper, and to Nancy Moricette as a heartbreakingly real Jekesai.
If there’s a flaw, it’s that things are tied up too quickly and completely. But even that is a compliment of sorts — when was the last time you wished a three-hour play were longer?
Through Nov. 10, $39-$46, Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad St., 215-546-7824, wilmatheater.org.
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