In 'The Convert,' a flight to Christianity

Nancy Moricette (center) is the young Jekesai in Danai Gurira's "The Convert" at the Wilma Theater, with Starla Benford and Irungu Mutu.
Nancy Moricette (center) is the young Jekesai in Danai Gurira's "The Convert" at the Wilma Theater, with Starla Benford and Irungu Mutu. (STAN BAROUH)
Posted: October 19, 2013

Yes, Danai Gurira slashed her way to commercial success as Michonne, The Walking Dead's taciturn, katana-wielding zombie beheader. But the Wilma Theater's coproduction (with Washington's Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company) of her third play, The Convert, proves she has plenty to say, particularly about Zimbabwe - her childhood home - and its bloody colonial legacy.

The first of a planned trilogy about the country's struggles, The Convert is set at the dawn of British colonial rule, 1895-97, in the newly christened city of Salisbury, Rhodesia; its characters, however, are all African. Young Jekesai (Nancy Moricette), a Shona girl fleeing an arranged marriage, is brought to the home of Chilford (Irungu Mutu), an aspiring Christian minister, by her aunt and his housekeeper, Mai Tamba (Starla Benford).

Jekesai proves an avid disciple, forsaking her family and culture and taking the biblical name Ester (perhaps a nod to August Wilson's own recurring character, Aunt Ester). After all, the white man's Jesus saved her from becoming, as she exclaims to her cousin Tamba (Joshua E. Nelson), "some old goat's 10th wife." Chilford's own cultural conversion shows its seams in his uneasy use of English idiom, as when he calls a mixed bag of a day "a bag of mixtures." Meanwhile, outside Chilford's tidy home - with its upholstered sofas and floors of concrete rather than customary cow dung - a similar, though far bloodier, battle rages.

Gurira deftly weaves allusions to Western playwrights throughout her script. In her comic Act 1 (of three), Chilford and his corrupt pal Chancellor (Lance Coadie Williams) discuss Ester's savagery and potential like African versions of Shaw's Higgins and Pickering. In Act 2, colonial violence destroys local villages and edges ever closer to bafu ("white man's native") traitors. Chilford flinches and flails like O'Neill's Emperor Jones when, despite his best efforts to anglicize his home, he discovers he has been living among Mai Tamba's surreptitiously placed witch doctor totems all along.

Gurira has created an epic crammed so full with fascinating ancillary characters, such as Chancellor's fiancee, the highly educated, displaced Prudence (Zainab Jah) and Ester's drunken uncle (Steven Wright), that three acts prove just enough time to get to know them all, and its unlikely denouement seems almost beside the point.

Michael John Garces' direction occasionally sags with melodrama, and Chilford's character stops developing during the second act. But led by Moricette, whose broad smile or stubbornly jutting chin reflect Jekesai/Ester's many internal contradictions and struggles, this first-rate cast brings Gurira's characters to life, and leaves its audience hungry for the next chapters in their history.


The Convert

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

Tickets: $35-$66. 215-546-7824, www.wilmatheater.org.

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