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REVIEW: Religion, Rigidity, and Rebellion in The Convert (Frank Theatre)

A scene from Frank Theatre’s The Convert, now playing at the Gremlin Theatre in St. Paul, MN. Photo by Tony Nelson.

It took eight years for Wendy Knox to secure the rights for Frank Theatre to stage Danai Gurira’s play The Convert. This play, set against the backdrop late-19th-century Zimbabwe, tells a striking story unfolding against the backdrop of British colonial rule.

The Convert was written by Danai Gurira, an American who grew up in Zimbabwe. One of Gurira’s stated goals is to bring the voices and experiences of African women to the stage. The play follows a young African woman who receives the name “Ester” when she agrees to become the protégé of a Christian missionary who is also African.  At the time, all she knows is that she will not have to marry the old man with many wives chosen by her uncle, who would receive a bride payment of a goat.  She revels in the opportunity to learn to read and write, but soon discovers her new faith requires that she cut herself off from her African family and its pagan culture.

Religion, identity, and colonialism are central themes in The Convert. Photo by Tony Nelson.

The play’s action happens in the claustrophobic rectangular living room and study of Chilford, the aforementioned Christian missionary. The sparse Victorian furnishings show no trace of African cultural adornment. The lighting design by Tony Stoeri, which leans toward sepia tone, and the sound design by Dan Dukich used to impart information about the colonial world outside, contribute well to the felt reality.

The performance opens with a non-realistic scene that grabs the attention of the audience, and which takes place outside the pristine stage set, in the space between the audience and the stage.  Maje Adams as Tamba and Ashe Jaafaru (soon to be known as Ester), enter on the run, speaking excitedly in the Shona language of Zimbabwe.  They look around, as if finding themselves in danger, and then disappear behind the set.  Unfortunately, that level of engaging theatricality is never repeated. Dramatic entrances and exits in some scenes were marred by double front doors that would not shut properly.  Several long entrances and exits through the living room hallway also became tedious.

In keeping with the tenants of Greek drama, most of the violent action of the play happens outside the set.  This includes a rebellion, incidents in the marketplace, and run-ins with the colonial authorities. This can work very effectively, such as the entrance of a character with a bleeding head wound, then proceeding to describe a violent attack, making the living room a breathing space in which the characters have a chance to sort out what is happening around them.

Prudence, marvelously played by Hope Cervantes, is an African woman who takes on the style and language of Victorian culture, freely admitting that she was disowned by her family and people.  She is highly educated and tries to use her intelligence to rise above the social difficulties she encounters.  She thinks she understands the inner motives of both the British and her native people and can navigate successfully between two worlds. She even accepts her fiancé’s multiple illegitimate children, since there are no opportunities for educated single black women in colonial society.

As outside, as within: emotions boil over into rioting and rebellion in The Convert. Photo by Tony Nelson.

Mai Tamba, played by Ivory Doublette, is the missionary’s housekeeper – who gets by pretending to be converted to the Christian faith of her master.  She provides great comic relief, both as she tries to recite prayers she doesn’t really understand and plants live snakes in the cushions of the couch to bring good luck in the manner of her people.

Chilford, the African Christian missionary, is played by Yinka Ayinde. This the most problematic performance of the production.  His grasp of the African-British dialect rings true and brings a sense of reality to the play, but his overall physical performance is quite stiff.  He exudes an uncomfortableness that at times plays well with his character’s struggles as a man caught between two cultures, but at other times is awkward.  To a lesser degree, the same problem is seen in the performance of Maje Adams as Tamba.  Adams is quite emotive, especially in the pivotal murder scene, but his movement is too lackadaisical, not showing the urgency supposedly felt by his character.

AJ Friday, in the supporting role of Chancellor, grounds the performance in reality with a lucid use of dialect and a believable physical presence.  His character’s attempted rape of Esther makes for one of the most dramatic turns in the play as the violence of the outside colonial world spills into the living room. Yet, the rape scene undercuts the realism of the play by seeming too choreographed, without a feeling that Esther is truly threatened.

Lip service, or true belief? A scene from The Convert. Photo by Tony Nelson.

The performance seemed to have two endings and I’m glad I didn’t begin clapping inappropriately.  This confusion comes about when Ester reveals that her colonial-style dress is soaked with blood and the dramatic impact is so high it signals a climax. But then, the effect is undercut when she quickly exits and returns in African garb to confront the missionary.

A challenge laid out for the director, Wendy Knox, was revealing the disposition of Ester’s mental state at the end. The trauma Ester suffers at the hands of the colonial authorities leads her to her own extreme act of rebellion. Was she driven mad in the face of overwhelming oppression and atrocity; was she completely rational and serene; or had she become nihilistic and cynical, finding nothing to believe in within either culture? I had hoped to see this drama play out. Instead, Ester is portrayed with too much clarity of mind as she accepts a tragic destiny.

The Convert is, ultimately, a play about the European colonial oppression of Africa. It automatically brought to my mind depressing present-day issues such as white privilege and cultural appropriation in America.  During intermission, however, I spoke with a woman of Asian Indian descent who has lived both in east Africa and the United States.  I was excited to hear her recount attending a Beatles concert in Tanzania in the Sixties, a group that I was never able to see in concert.  My conversation with her reassured me of the redemptive value of intercultural contact and the potential of multicultural education to achieve understanding.

The Convert plays through March 15 at Gremlin Theatre in St. Paul, MN.

Dan Reiva