'The Convert': The story of Rhodesia at Woolly Mammoth

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Entertainment,Barbara Mackay

Playwright Danai Gurira was raised in Zimbabwe, once called Rhodesia, the country where her intricate play "The Convert," on view at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, takes place.

The climax of "The Convert" happens in the mid-1890s, when a perfect storm of antagonism existed among two warring tribes, as well as British, German, Portuguese and Boer colonizers looking to get rich, and Christian missionaries looking to expand their influence.

But in order to make sense of that chaos, Gurira steps back and begins her drama a bit earlier, showing a slightly more peaceful Rhodesia, when the explosions in the background were foreboding, not deafening.

Gurira reflects on the lives of seven African characters as they deal with many concepts: cultural identity, religion, ownership, morality and being black in what was increasingly becoming a white man's world.

Onstage
'The Convert'
» Where: Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D St. NW
» When: Through March 10
» Info: $40 to $67.50; 202-393-3939; woollymammoth.net

The play's main character is Jekesai (Nancy Moricette), a young girl whose aunt, Mai Tamba (Starla Benford) brings her to the home of an African priest, Chilford (Irungu Mutu), and begs him to employ Jekesai as a maid. Chilford agrees with the understanding that Jekesai will convert from her native religion to Catholicism. Jekesai agrees and becomes Chilford's most ardent student.

Gurira writes concisely about struggle. She deftly suggests that even Western religion could not solve the problems that faced Jekesai. Before she comes to Chilford's, Jekesai fights against her uncle (Erik Kilpatrick) who wants to sell her for a good bride price. She argues with her cousin Tamba (JaBen Early) about her conversion. Chilford controls her as completely as an Oriental sultan controls a wife in his harem. Chilford's sleazy friend, Chancellor (Alvin Keith), tries to rape her.

These struggles seem credible because Gurira has an excellent theatrical sense, particularly for women's roles. In addition to Jekesai's passionate voice, there is Benford's comedic presence -- her Mai Tamba suggests that if you lie cleverly enough, you can keep your old religion and have a new one too.

One of the best characters is the intelligent, sophisticated Prudence (Dawn Ursula), Chancellor's fiancee. Ursula endows Prudencia with cool confidence and supreme independence.

Set designer Misha Kachman begins the play in the slightly tattered but well-cared-for home of the priest, then shows that home as a bombed-out wreck after the famous, bloody anti-colonial uprising of 1896. Helen Huang's costumes express precisely each character's status. Huang captures Jekesai's conversion from free spirit to housemaid particularly well.

"The Convert" could benefit from some minor tightening; at present it lasts over three hours. Still, directed with energy and precision by Michael John Garces, and acted by a first-rate cast, this "Convert" is a powerful hymn to the history of Zimbabwe.

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