Riveting - even the Shona

Cheryl Lynn Bruce, LeRoy McClain in "The Convert," a play about turning from tribal culture to adopt European religion and ways.
Cheryl Lynn Bruce, LeRoy McClain in "The Convert," a play about turning from tribal culture to adopt European religion and ways. (CHARLES ERICKSON)
Posted: January 24, 2012

PRINCETON - A contempt-filled word: Bafu means traitor in Shona, the indigenous language in the African country that would become Zimbabwe, and The Convert is about betrayal. This world premiere at the McCarter Theatre Center, 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, naive, 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 protegee. 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 fiancee 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.

The Convert

Berlind Theatre at McCarter Theatre Center, 91 University Place, Princeton. Through Feb. 12. Tickets $20-$70.

Information: 609-258-2787 or www.McCarter.org.

Follow Toby Zinman on Twitter at #philastage. Read her reviews at www.philly.com/phillystage.

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