Colonialism and Faith kindle drama at Marin Theatre
You hear plenty about modern southern Africa, the recent Nelson Mandela bio pic, for example, but much less about how the troubles in that troubled part of the world are rooted in a past that’s more than a century old. Danai Gurira’s taut, absorbing The Convert, now at Marin Theatre, opens our eyes to that past, delivering us to a British colonial outpost in Rhodesia in 1896.
The play is unusual in several ways, one of which is that, though we feel the suffocating consequences of colonialism in every scene, not a single Englishman appears onstage. That’s because The Convert is about the effects of colonialism, and especially of religious missionary zeal, on the native population. The natives are the play’s focus, and its drama grows out of their complex responses to the European need, not just to dominate them, but to win their hearts and minds.
The tale unfolds in the home of a young black man named Chilford, who has been converted to Catholicism. A teacher whose highest aspiration is to become a Jesuit priest, his zeal for his newfound faith borders on the obsessive. He hasn’t had much luck persuading the local Shona people from their animistic beliefs, so when a young woman named Jekesai is brought to him for protection against her uncle, who claims, according to local custom, that he owns her because her father has died, Chiford is thrilled to discover she’s a willing convert to his religion.
He takes her in, he righteously protects her, but he doesn’t reckon with the angry view that he’s a traitor to his people, a tool of British oppressors who want to force the natives to work in their mines.
Violence brews outside the walls of his home while drama brews inside them, until a violent murder occurs.
The Convert is admirably worked out and structured by Zimbabwean/American playwright Danai Gurira. (Zimbabwe is the modern name of the nation once known as Rhodesia). She peoples the confined space of Chilford’s simple home with such a rich tangle of characters that the history and politics of the era seem to break down its doors, crowd into its space. The Convert is one of those plays set in the past that transcend its period to achieve a powerful general relevance.
issuesdrama, aided by a fine support team: Nina Ball (scenic design) Fumiko Bielefeldt (costumes), Gabe Maxon (lighting) and Chris Houston (original compositions and sound).
The expert cast embodies the drama with fine-tuned precision, from Katherine Renee Turner as the fervent Jekesai, to L. Peter Callender as Jekesai’s seething Uncle, to the versatile Omoze Idehenre, who has become one of the Bay Area actors I most look forward to seeing, as Prudence. No less notable are Jabari Brisport (Chilford), Elizabeth Carter (Mai Tamba), Jefferson A. Russell (Chancellor), and JaBen Early (Tamba). They comprise an admirable ensemble.
The Convert plays in Mill Valley until March 15th, followed by Mona Mansour’s The Way West in April. For tickets/information call 415-388-5208 or visit www.marintheatre.org.