The “white devil” remains offstage in “The Convert” — which makes Danai Gurira’s play about the British colonization of what is now Zimbabwe more troubling and complex. The obvious villains — from diamond-digging Cecil John Rhodes on down — are M.I.A., while the play’s African characters represent varying attitudes toward their oppressors, from outright hero worship to cunning and then blatant rebellion. The time is 1895-‘97, a period during which — as a narrative flashed across a wall of the set informs us — Rhodesia, its birth unwelcome, is “crowning.”
The Ohio-born Gurira, who grew up in Zimbabwe and was educated in the U.S., refers to herself as “Zimerican.” She writes vividly for the stage, perhaps because she is an actress (television’s “Treme” and “The Walking Dead”) as well as a dramatist (“In the Continuum,” “Eclipsed”). “The Convert,” which Underground Railway Theater is unleashing at Central Square Theater (through Feb. 28), won both the 2011 Stavis Playwright Award and an Edgerton Foundation New American Plays Award. Written in three acts, it is ambitious if somewhat cumbersome, with a searing but melodramatic end. And it’s getting a riveting if not always comprehensible staging at CST under the direction of Megan Sandberg-Zakian.
Some conversations in the play are spoken in Shona, but the Africans also speak English, whether proudly or coerced. (The “dialect design” is by Christine Hamel.) But perhaps some authenticity of accent might be sacrificed for the sake of understanding; the people sitting behind me complained that they missed about a third of the dialogue. Be that as it may, it’s pretty clear what goes on as some characters embrace the new regime, with its perks both monetary and hedonistic, while others find their very culture threatened and themselves impoverished and disenfranchised to the boiling point.
At the center of the conflict is a bright, susceptible young woman named Jekesai, who is brought into the home of Chilford, a committed African Catholic cleric hungry for pupils whom he means to educate as well as convert. Jekesai is the niece of Chilford’s housekeeper, Mai Tamba, who pays lip service to her employer’s faith (“Hail Mary, full of ghosts,” she addresses a crucifix on the wall) but also hides African amulets behind the couch cushions and under the rugs. She knows Chilford cannot resist a potential convert, but her real intention is to save Jekesai from an uncle who wants to force her into a polygamous marriage to an old man in exchange for a cache of goats.
To Chilford’s delight, Jekesai, renamed Ester, squeezed into a shapeless Victorian dress and trained to serve tea from a silver service, takes enthusiastically to her new religion. After a single day of schooling, she brims with the entire story of Jesus and his Passion. But Chilford, in his fanaticism, insists that his new “protégée” reject not only her family’s spiritual traditions, including honoring elders and the dead, but also her family itself. Eager and truly faithful, she struggles to comply.
But if Chilford’s religious zealotry is sincere, his friends send mixed messages. Chancellor, the cleric’s comrade since their mutual childhood takeover by a white missionary, enjoys his Anglicization, down to starched collar and pocket watch, but proves to be a womanizer out to assert his Brit-borrowed power. And Chancellor’s feminist fiancée, Prudence, is both a proper Victorian lady and the fierce daughter of Ndebele warriors, balancing her “Queen’s English” with a still-extant command of “the vernacular.” Alas, to their fellow natives (arrayed in an apt mix of Western and indigenous dress), these privileged Africans are “bafu” — traitors. No good can come of the simmering conflict — or of the cultural split being endured by the fervent Jekesai.
At Central Square, scenic designer Jenna McFarland-Lord artfully suggests the house-proud Chilford’s spare Western “accommodations,” from cement rather than cow-dung floor to stiff, upholstered furnishings. Sound designer Nathan Leigh’s choral transitions are effective. And the performances are uniformly fine, whether the material demands dense talk (“The Convert” is loosely based on Shaw’s “Pygmalion”) or sustained paroxysms.
Anchoring the theater piece are Adobuere Ebiama’s ebullient Jekesai, whose features register every ardent or perplexed reaction, and Maurice Emmanuel Parent as a pompous Chilford whose rigid walk is more like a march but whose utterances burn with long-buttoned-down emotion. Liana Asim is a sly, growly Mai Tamba, determined or toadying as it suits her. Equiano Mosieri is an imposing Chancellor, perhaps the least likable if eloquent and therefore appreciable character. Paul S. Benford Bruce is bullying yet cagey as Jekesai’s affronted uncle, Ricardy Charles Fabre irrepressible yet bewildered as her increasingly angry cousin, Tamba. Perhaps most fascinating is Trinity Rep alum Nehassaiu DeGannes as the prim, feisty Prudence — a sophisticated combatant in cinched waist and just the suggestion of a bustle.
“The Convert” takes a bit of effort, not to mention two and three quarter hours. But it’s worth it.
Carolyn Clay was for many years the theater editor and chief drama critic for the Boston Phoenix. She is a past winner of the George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism.