Danai Gurira's mission: Talking Africa

Danai Gurira portrays Michonne in "The Walking Dead" on AMC.
Danai Gurira portrays Michonne in "The Walking Dead" on AMC. (GENE PAGE / AMC)
Posted: October 18, 2013

She's celebrated as one of the most derriere-whupping zombie-killers in the history of The Walking Dead in her role as Michonne, who rarely speaks but carries a very big, sharp sword.

But to the literati, Danai Gurira also is one of the most promising young playwrights in contemporary American theater, with a growing body of critically acclaimed plays, including In the Continuum and Eclipsed, that illuminate, with stark dramatic contrasts, some of the harrowing issues facing sub-Saharan Africa.

The 35-year-old Zimbabwean American brings her gifts to bear on her parents' homeland in The Convert, an emotionally searing historical drama about British colonialism in 19th-century Zimbabwe that opened this week at the Wilma Theater.

The Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company production, which received rave reviews in previous runs in Washington, D.C., and at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, will be at the Wilma through Nov. 10.

Written for seven characters and set entirely in a crudely fashioned living room, The Convert is about a group of Westernized locals whose decision to embrace Christianity and to aid the British settlers comes to haunt them during their people's first anticolonial rebellion in 1895. That struggle would go on for a century: Zimbabwe did not gain its independence until 1980.

Irungu Mutu stars as Childford, a devout Catholic who was brought up by Jesuit missionaries and whose life's goal is to convert more "savages," as he calls his African brethren. (The play is set in his house.)

Childford finds aid and comfort in Ester (Nancy Moricette), a girl in her late teens who becomes his apprentice after running away from her village. Her family, who know her by her birth name, Jekesai, pursue her and threaten to bring down bloodshed on the household.

"Childford, at least at the beginning of the play, is very much a manifestation of how Christianity can be used to truly befuddle and disconnect and muddle the cultural identity of Africans," Gurira said Wednesday in an interview at the Wilma. The young man refuses to speak in his native Ndebele and derides virtually all native practices and rituals as barbaric.

"He has a great deal of hate for people who won't embrace these new things" the British bring with them, Mutu said during a break from rehearsal. "But he loves his people and believes he's helping them by forcing them to accept progress."

While Childford is paralyzed by his split consciousness and his deep sense of guilt and shame about his African identity, his student Ester is able to transcend his unwavering certainty that to progress one must abandon one's past.

"[Ester] eventually tries to teach him that he has become so corrupted by his ideology, he needs to learn how to empathize with the African people again," said Moricette of her character in a phone interview.

In Gurira's hands, the twisted road that takes Childford to that end is filled with high drama, mental breakdowns, murders, and much pathos. And it will require Ester to undergo a most disturbing and violent transformation.

"This chick who you'd never thought would be that chick is that chick by the end of the play," said Gurira.

In another fascinating twist, the play takes a most surprising attitude toward religion. "People think the play is going to be a simple condemnation of Christianity," she said.

"But when it is extracted from the colonizers and absorbed as something owned by the people themselves, [religion] can be a very powerful tool against the colonizers. We've seen this in America with Martin Luther King Jr."

Gurira said The Convert is part of a planned cycle of three or four plays that will trace the history of Zimbabwe up to its independence and beyond into the 21st century.

"It's very important to humanize history" through drama, she said. "And I think it's a very important way for people to learn who we are based on where we have come from."

Does Gurira hope that Zimbabwe and its neighbors finally can emerge as fully self-determined nations free of political or economic colonialism?

"Yes, but we're only 33 years old as a nation. Such a young nation is still grappling with its identity and its own history. We are still piecing together our own story," she said.

"Once we have gone through our Wild West phase and . . . our full industrialized phase, then we will stable out."

She added, "But right now, it does look crazy to the rest of the world."


THEATER

The Convert

Through Nov. 10 at the Wilma Theater, 265 S Broad St.

Tickets: $35-$66.

215-546-7824, www.wilmatheater.org


tirdad@phillynews.com

215-854-2736

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