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Arts and Entertainment

Major New Voice in American Theater Emerges with 'The Convert'

The Convert.jpg
Pascale Armand and Zainab Jah (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)
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Danai Gurira's "The Convert," which opened last week at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, is old-fashioned high drama for a very contemporary audience. Set in late 19th century colonial Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), the play depicts a cultural and ultimately violent tension between traditional and assimilationist African communities.

Caught between these two factions is a young woman, Jesekai (Pascale Armand), who escapes her uncle's (Harold Surrartt) attempt to force her marriage to an elderly man by joining the household of the devout local Christian leader Chilford (Leroy McClain). Under Chilford's tutelage, Jesekai is renamed Ester, learns to speak English and sincerely embraces Roman Catholicism, even taking to the streets to recruit additional converts. But when members of her original family rebel against the British authorities with whom Chilford is aligned, Ester is compelled to prioritize between the irreconcilably competing ties of blood and faith.

As the stakes of Jesekai/Ester's identity crisis increase to an excruciating breaking point, her every decision is challenged by another, older and worldlier converted woman, Prudence (Zainab Jah). Prudence and her fiance Chancellor (Kevin Mambo) are close friends of Chilford who have also cast their lot with the colonial forces, albeit for material rather than spiritual reasons. While Chancellor proves to be a cynically loutish creature of appetite, Prudence is a witty and sophisticated proto-feminist devoid of rosy illusions about the consequences of the choices she has made and the choices that have been made for her.

A co-production between three leading national theater companies -- our own Center Theatre Group, Princeton's McCarter Theatre, and the Goodman in Chicago -- "The Convert" is by turns very funny and impossibly heartbreaking, with a near-perfect cast directed by Emily Mann. We weren't sure what we were in for when the usher taking our ticket casually mentioned the play would last three hours with two intermissions. But Gurira's well-crafted, emotionally jarring drama had us engrossed the whole time and convinced that we were witnessing the emergence of a major new voice in the American theater of our still-young century.

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It's probably time to mention, too, that CTG has absolutely been on a roll this season in all three venues, with three big premieres coming up in the next two months. Good news for audiences on both sides of town. Bad news for evening traffic on the 10.

"The Convert" plays every evening except Mondays, plus Saturday (except for May 12) and Sunday matinees, through May 13, with an additional Saturday night performance May 19. Tickets $20-$49.50 on the CTG website or by calling (213) 628-2772.