Friday, September 19, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Review: THE CONVERT

Toby Zinman found this new play by Danai Gurira riveting, with a cast beyond outstanding.

Review: THE CONVERT

By Toby Zinman
FOR THE INQUIRER

A contempt-filled word: Bafu means traitor in Shona, the indigenous language in the African land that would become Zimbabwe, and The Convert is about betrayal. This world premiere at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre, written by Danai Gurira and directed by Emily Mann, boasts a cast that is beyond outstanding. The performances are so riveting that the play’s three hours fly by.

This is a conventional,  well-made  play that  almost feels as if it had been written in the late 19th century, when its action takes place; it has three acts, great curtain lines, a plot that has clarity, linearity, and a serious political agenda. The characters are familiar types yet distinct individuals, and it asks the question: Is it self-betrayal to aspire to be other than your native culture, which in this case means leaving your tribal village, learning English, embracing Christianity, wearing European clothing drinking tea with your pinky out?

This is what Chilford (LeRoy McClain) has done; he is a black missionary, deeply earnest, naïve and well-meaning. His maid, Mai Tamba (Cheryl Lynn Bruce) an earth-mother type, obediently recites the Hail Mary when asked to, but secretly stashes native roots and charms all over the house. Mai Tamba brings her niece Jekesai (Pascale Armand) to work in the house, as a way of rescuing her from a forced marriage to an old man. Chilford renames her Ester; she will become the convert and his protégé. Her cousin (Warner Joseph Miller) and uncle (Harold Surratt) complicate the plot.

There are two other Anglophile black Africans: the womanizing Chancellor (Kevin Mambo) and his fiancée Prudence (Zainab Jah), whose sophistication and education have no place in either the white or the black world, since both are exclusively male.

Part of what makes The Convert fascinating is the fact that much of the dialogue is in Shona (the things actors can learn!), which we  somehow  understand. The English is heavily accented and filled with quaint and charming malapropisms. Even more intriguing are the gestures — the difference in the ways hands express meaning: supplication or gratitude or dismissive irritation or just hello and goodbye. The performances feel so authentic that it’s hard to remember that these are American actors with major New York credentials.

Playwright Gurira was born in the United States but raised in Zimbabwe; she has an impressive acting career and has won prize after prize for her writing; her first big hit was  In the Continuum, a split-stage play about two young women, one in Harlem, one in Africa, who learn on the same day that their boyfriend/husband has given them AIDS. Even more remarkable, it’s funny.

The Convert is a chance to see an impressive new work by an impressive young playwright.

***
Berlind Theatre at McCarter Theatre Center, 91 University Place, Princeton. Through Feb. 12. Tickets $20-$70.  Information: 609-258-2787 or www.McCarter.org.

About this blog
Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer. She also is a contributing writer for Variety and American Theatre magazine. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of four books about four playwrights (Rabe, McNally, Miller, Albee), and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). Her 'weekend' job as a travel writer provides adventure: dogsledding in the Yukon, ziplining in Belize, walking coast-to-coast across England, and cowboying in the Australian Outback.


Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.


Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.


Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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