At the start of Danai Gurira's ambitious, arduous new drama, The Convert, a 15-year-old African girl named Jekesai is poised to take a leap from the frying pan into the fire. What a shame that Gurira leaves her to simmer for such a long time first.
It's 1895, and we're in Salisbury, the British outpost that will eventually become Harare, present-day capital of Zimbabwe. Jekesai's father has just died, and her greedy uncle, eyeing a generous "bride prize," plans to marry her off to an older man who already has many wives. Headstrong Jekesai will have none of it. She flees to the home of Chilford, an African Christian who does missionary work and also aids the local British authorities by arbitrating disputes between villagers. When the irate uncle comes looking for her, Chilford issues a swift, telling judgment. "I will not be on the standby and release allowance to you to practice polygamy and the selling of a young woman's body under my very nostril," he declares. "It is not of wonder the white speaks of our savagery. Dispute settled."
Chilford gives Jekesai sanctuary in his mansion and sets out to transform her into his protege, renaming her Ester, lecturing her on the sinfulness of her people's pagan ways, and admonishing her that only Jesus Christ and Queen Victoria can lead African souls out of darkness. She's an exceptionally quick learner. In no time she's correcting the local white priest on his scriptural quotations.
The transformation Jekesai undergoes wasn't uncommon among native-born women in 19th-century southern Africa. In fact, Gurira's own great-great-aunt became a nun to escape being sold off as a bride. The push and pull Jekesai feels between centuries-old traditions and newly adopted European ways provides some of the most convincing, compelling drama in The Convert, thanks in large part to Pascale Armand's richly detailed performance as Jekesai in this Goodman Theatre production directed by Emily Mann.
But Jekesai's sense of safety is illusory. She's blind to the danger of turning her back on her people at this critical historical moment—just as the First Chimurenga, a brutal and bloody anticolonial rebellion, is about to erupt.
The violence was long overdue. In 1889 Queen Victoria had granted Cecil Rhodes's British South African Company complete power over the area, thus giving a commercial enterprise the "right" to invade tribal lands, establish a police force, and, most important, extract minerals. Indigenous men were put to work in BSAC mines, their cattle sometimes confiscated. Those who held out had little choice but to capitulate when, in 1894, the BSAC imposed a "hut tax" that could be paid only with BSAC currency. When a plague wiped out the local livestock, tribal religious leaders insisted that indignant ancestral spirits were crying out for revenge. In mid-1896 the Shona and Ndebele peoples rose up. By the time the violence ended a year and a half later, as many as half the white settlers in the region had been slaughtered.
So a revolt that will target not only British colonialists but African "traitors" is brewing just beyond the seeming safety of Chilford's parlor. But for the first two of The Convert's three long hours, you'd hardly know it. The outside world is depicted as an indeterminate mix of Africans and whites whose broad complaints are heard mostly in passing. Rather than allow the political environment into the play, to shape daily life—as she did so masterfully in her 2009 Eclipsed, set in a warlord's camp during the Liberian civil war—Gurira dispenses with daily life almost entirely. Instead, she stages a series of heated exchanges in which the participants mostly enunciate their worldviews. During the first act, Chilford does practically nothing but denigrate local "savages," praise the Gospels, and esteem all things European. He's barely even two-dimensional—a weakness LeRoy McClain's performance exacerbates.
Gurira's characters talk, argue, debate, and complain, sometimes quite compellingly. But very little happens to them. Gurira mostly populates her stage with viewpoints rather than people. The particularized, telling actions that give a stage world lifelike fullness are almost entirely absent. And the decisive historical forces that should heighten the stakes remain maddeningly vague. Even when the Chimurenga starts and bloodthirsty men burst into Chilford's Christian refuge, the threat is too generic to inspire real terror.
In the third act, Gurira finally finds a concrete way to show the effects of colonial rule on the colonized. With her cousin Tamba accused of murdering a white mine owner, Jekesai decides to represent him in court, enlisting the assistance of Miss Prudence, a local college-educated Europhile (and a fascinating character who's sorely underutilized in the play). The two women march confidently into a political hurricane. The devastating result is the beginning of the great play Gurira might've written.