Theater: Tour de force

Marin Theatre Company’s ‘The Convert’ a powerful first leg of trilogy

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L. Peter Callender, JaBen Early and Elizabeth Carter in 'The Convert'

by Charles Brousse

No doubt you’ve noticed a tendency among theater critics, myself included, to describe the merits of a show in a review’s initial paragraphs, leaving any bad news for the last sentence or two. We do this knowing full well that many readers will never get there, the motivation being that this very fragile art form needs all the help it can get and it would be a shame if our subjective negative opinions discouraged someone with different sensibilities from attending.

As that rationale clashes with a critic’s duty to uphold recognized artistic standards and provide a truthful account of his or her experience, I’ve tried to limit the delay tactic and therefore am absolutely delighted when a production comes along that requires no splitting of moral hairs. We now have one such show in our own midst in the form of Marin Theatre Company’s current Bay Area premiere of The Convert, by Danai Gurira.

This gripping drama about the clash of native African and British colonial cultures in late 19th century Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), might be a trifle over long at just under three hours; the rapidly spoken Africanized English dialogue is at times difficult to understand, and it has an unexpectedly melodramatic ending. But, in both conception and performance the play is an undeniable tour de force that requires no tactical defense.

Though born in Ohio, Gurira is the daughter of Zimbabwean parents and her childhood was spent partly in Zimbabwe and partly in this country. Her professional career has been extremely varied, combining award-winning acting and playwriting in the U.S. with teaching stints in Liberia, South Africa and Zimbabwe. The Convert is the first leg of a planned trilogy that will trace the evolution of African society as Western domination wanes and is eventually ended. It’s a remarkably ambitious project that, though smaller in scale, reminds me of August Wilson’s series of plays about the black diaspora in America after the abolition of slavery. If future segments turn out to be anywhere near as powerful in their impact, we may be witnessing the emergence of a major new voice in our national theater.

Although the title is singular, there are actually two religious converts at the center of Gurira’s drama. The first is Chilford, a tall, thin, black man whose dress, manner and speech are almost a caricature of a Victorian church deacon—except that Chilford (Jabari Brisport in a finely detailed performance), despite having converted to Cathoicism as a child and earnestly preparing himself, has been unable to achieve his goal of entering the priesthood. Instead, the British Native Commision has given him a position as a lowly missionary whose job is to coax animism-practicing Africans into the Christian fold. Imagine, then, his joy when his flamboyant housekeeper, Mai Tamba (Elizabeth Carter), asks him to protect her beautiful niece Jekesai (Katherine Renee Turner) from an unwanted arranged marriage to a much older man, saying that the girl desires to be tutored by him so that she, too, can convert. He immediately renames her Ester after the biblical figure and designates her his protègè.

From that point on, a number of colorful characters swirl around this core trio as the conflict between natives and occupiers intensifies and they are caught in the middle. Actors filling out one of the most talented ensembles I’ve seen locally include JaBen Early, L. Peter Callender, Jefferson A. Russell and Omoze Idehenre. Besides his casting skill, MTC’s artistic director, Jasson Minadakis, provides a crisp staging that keeps the audience involved even when Gurira, in a bid to heighten the play’s realistic atmosphere, has her characters use the native idiom.

In summary, quite an achievement all around.

Charles Brousse can be reached at cbrousse@att.net.

NOW PLAYING

The Convert runs through Sunday, March 15 at the Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley. For more information, call 415/388-5208 or visit boxoffice@marintheatre.org.

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