Barefoot, barebreasted, and barely able to contain her enthusiasm for a life unfettered by African tradition, the title character of The Convert arrives at the Christian household that employs her aunt, seeming a kind of avatar for the play that will soon be struggling to contain her.
The year is 1895, and Jekesai (Nancy Moricette) is an innocent child of what will someday be Zimbabwean soil. She’s passionate, eager to embrace transcendence (and unafraid of drudgery if it’ll get her there)—something you might also say of her country, though the tribulations of colonialism will dim that fervor quickly enough. Jekesai discovers that abandoning a paternalistic tribal hierarchy that would have kept her subservient in the kitchen for supposed liberation in the tribe of Roman Catholicism will only blunt her ambitions differently. Still, if it’s not quite the trade she’d hoped for, it does open her eyes about men, faith, and the anguish that will accompany a bloody clash of cultures.
Playwright and actress Danai Gurira, the Ohio-born, Zimbabwe-raised child of African academics, is now best known as The Walking Dead’s fierce Michonne, but has also been a vivid chronicler of women’s travails in dramas about AIDS (In the Continuum) and human trafficking (Eclipsed), both of which were produced at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. She’s working on a larger canvas in The Convert—the first of a planned Zimbabwean trilogy—that aims to tell the story of colonialism from the point of view of the colonized. That the author’s middle name is Jekesai suggests her investment in this play’s protagonist. And Moricette’s ferociously engaging, Pygmalion-inspired performance makes her a vivid presence, even as the story gives power almost exclusively to the men—earnest missionary (Irungu Mutu), hidebound uncle (Erik Kilpatrick), hotheaded cousin (JaBen Early), and Westernized cad (Alvin Keith)—with whom she interacts.
Interestingly, Gurira has penned a pair of secondary female roles that offer other intriguing windows on the bridge between cultures: Jekesai’s aunt (Starla Benford), who obediently recites the Lord’s Prayer while hiding talismans to ward off evil spirits in her Christian employer’s home; and a sharp-tongued intellectual (Dawn Ursula) who has attained a level of education and sophistication that makes her contemptuous of the white men who regard themselves as her superiors.
That all of these women will come to grief begins to feel foreordained by the second of three long acts in Michael John Garcés’ straightforward staging, with plot twists taking the story out of the missionary’s house and into a broader social realm, blunting the force of an ambitious drama that starts out vivid and specific (long early scenes are spoken entirely in Shona dialect), only to end up feeling diffuse and melodramatic.