During the late 1890s, when Danai Gurira’s Southern African epic “The Convert” is set, Norwegian Henrik Ibsen was at the peak of his powers as a dramatic moralist. Coincidence or not, “The Convert” is the most Ibsenesque American play in years, a three-act melodrama unafraid to proclaim its themes in block letters as an independent minded woman is trapped in a tightening noose set by patriarchal authority. Like “A Doll’s House” and “Hedda Gabler,” “The Convert” is slow in the windup but ends up dealing a knockout blow as helmed by Emily Mann at the Kirk Douglas.
The play demonstrates the sweep and power a scribe can obtain through economical means. Into a single room, a cleric’s parlor in what’s now Harare, Zimbabwe, come all the anticolonial sparks the next century would whip into a pan-continental brushfire. And notwithstanding the all-African cast list, we’re never permitted to forget a peripheral European presence, exploiting resources and bending the indigenous peoples into its own image.
“The Convert” asks the important, always timely question: to what extent can someone won over to a cause truly transform her identity? Young Jekesai (Pascale Armand) embraces Christianity and the biblical name “Ester,” first as an expedient escape from tribal oppression and then out of devout belief. Yet centuries of racial custom prove difficult to resist, let alone the social boxes in which whites and blacks alike are determined to confine her.
Armand marshals total emotional authenticity in growing the childlike Ester into a formidable vessel of power and grace. And Ibsen himself couldn’t have contrived stronger “second women” than Cheryl Lynn Bruce’s fierce Auntie Mai Tamba, an earth mother whose devotion to Jesus proves only a thin veneer; and Zainab Jah’s delicate Prudence, village-raised and London-educated but comfortable in neither skin.
Gurira falls short, as Ibsen usually did, of opposing female powerhouses with equally robust male characters. Ester’s “master” Rev. Chilton Ndlovu is a milquetoasty antagonist indeed, muttering “Gracious to goodness” and, in LeRoy McClain’s rendering, perhaps even more of a horse’s ass than the playwright had in mind. Warner Joseph Miller is also a bit of a weak sister as Tamba, Jekesai’s intended back in the day.
Those with more selfish plans for her come off better. Harold Surratt scores as a crude yet haughtily dignified elder, while Kevin Mambo’s genial, vaguely sinister Chancellor falls interestingly in the tradition of Hedda Gabler’s malevolent confidante Judge Brack.
Paul Tazewell’s costumes clearly reflect the script’s cultural clashes, while Lap-Chi Chu’s lighting conveys the contrast between Daniel Ostling’s austere, Scandinavian-tinged setting, and window glimpses of the life-affirming savannah.
In 2009’s “Eclipsed,” Gurira feelingly examined the plight of women caught in modern African crossfire, though her arguments tended to overwhelm the drama. Similarly, the often impenetrable accents of “The Convert” make it tough to absorb all the historical and sociological detail.
Yet shifting focus back 100 years finds the playwright in firmer command of her tools. This exhausting, yet always riveting moral exploration transcends its historical epoch to strike chords relevant to every time and place.