The playwright-actress Danai Gurira was born in the United States to Zimbabwean parents, and was raised in their country of origin. So clearly there is a personal quest at work in her play, “The Convert,” now at the Goodman’s Owen Theatre.
Yet the history of Zimbabwe, the African country formerly known as “the British self-governing colony of Southern Rhodesia,” is well worth telling on any count. Not only does it serve as a reminder of the cultural, spiritual, economic and political havoc that was visited on the place by the British in the late 19th century. It also can be seen as a cautionary tale – one that suggests the poisoned roots of the country’s now tyrannical (if initially “liberationist”) president, Robert Mugabe – were planted a long time ago, and continue to infect every aspect of the nation’s existence.
Gurira’s play, directed by Emily Mann (on Daniel Ostling’s simple but evocative set), homes in on a particularly tense period from 1895-1897, when Christian missionaries were trying to save the souls of “savages,” when Cecil Rhodes’ British South Africa Company began turning mines into hugely profitable ventures that left the local workers trapped and impoverished, and when whatever advances were introduced came at a terrible price to the dignity and identity of the local population. The culture clash also set in motion some brutal class warfare that resulted in black-on-black violence between new Christian converts and the practitioners of traditional tribal ways, with Gurira upping the ante with a proto-feminist spin that seems a bit anachronistic.
“The Convert” is set in motion when Chilford Chiredzi (LeRoy McClain, aptly priggish and snobbish), a young pastor harboring dreams of becoming the first full-fledged black priest in Africa, reluctantly accepts the pleas of his elderly housekeeper, Mai Tamba (Earth mother figure Cheryl Lynn Bruce), who engages covertly in her tribal practices. She begs him to hire her pretty young niece, Jekesai (Pascale Armand, a luminous actress who makes several impressive transitions), who has fled her village to escape marriage to an elderly Uncle (fine character work by Harold Surratt).
Jekesai proves exceptionally smart and eager to study, quickly accepts a Christian name (Ester), a clothing shift (from bare-breasted tribal dress to Victorian frock), and a religious conversion. And while she picks up both English and Catholic dogma in record time (think of this as something of a “Pygmalion” story), only later, after becoming Chilford’s most gifted protege, does she come to realize the deeper sacrifices she has made. Unfortunately, it takes three hours for the story to come full circle, even though the inevitable outcome can be guessed in the first 15 minutes.
In many ways it is two supporting characters who are most intriguing here: Chancellor (Kevin Mambo, perfectly shrewd and salacious), a wheeler-dealer convert already deep into corruption, and his striking fiancee, Prudence (the bristling, charismatic Zainab Jah), a highly educated, pipe-smoking convert and feminist who realizes she is now “a freak” who fit in nowhere. The Everyman here is Tamba (Warner Joseph Miller), the ordinary black laborer and father who is abused by the colonial system and pushed to the brink.
The acting here is first-rate, but the script, despite its ambition, too often feels overly contrived, even as its subject remains both explosive and profound.