All words: The Theatre Gay
We all have labels. Some that we choose, some that are prescribed to us. For example, I label myself as the Theatre Gay, but some people call me things that wouldn’t be appropriate to list here. In Africa around the turn of the century, these labels not only defined who you are, but they defined who you were with. Danai Gurira’s “The Convert,” running through March 10 at Woolly Mammoth, weaves a tale where cultural and religious labels intertwine in a dangerous and explosive way. The first few minutes of the play were in an African dialect I was not familiar with, but I’m pretty sure I got the rest of it.
The play opens on a simple set evocative of an African home. Mai Tamba (Starla Benford) is the maid of this house. We see her quietly let in two African tribes people, Jekesai (Nancy Moricette) and Tamba (JaBen Early), her niece and son, respectively. Tamba is rushing Jekesai out of their tribe, due to a mismatched marriage. We learn that this is the home of Chilford (Irungu Mutu), an African Jesuit occupying a low-level government position. Chilford is devoutly religious forcing Mai Tamba and Jekesai to adopt his beliefs. Jekesai, in order to remain in the house, must begin to take classes at the local Jesuit school, and changes her name to Esther. As the show continues, Esther/Jekesai is forced to make crucial decisions between her new found faith and her heritage. When Chilford’s best friend Chancellor (Alvin Keith) is murdered by members of Jekesai’s tribe, he is forced to pick up the pieces with Chancellor’s fiancee Prudence (Dawn Ursula). Jekesai is at the center of a superstorm: Hurricane Jesus, versus the Blizzard of her Tribal Roots. She becomes the linch pin, but is the pressure too much for her?
The cast here is really strong together, although there are some clear standouts. In particular, Dawn Ursula as Prudence. There are really no words for how much I adored her performance. An intelligent fierce woman, Dawn was both humorous and heartbreaking. I’m about to start the “Dawn Ursula Unofficial Facebook Fan Group.” And JaBen Early captures the rage of a young man on the brink of losing his family. The set was really simple, elegant, and beautiful. Misha Kachman, set designer, did a gorgeous job of capturing the South African way of life in both the physical (Victorian Era furniture turning to simple benches and chairs) and the evocative (blue plastic bags standing in for the clouds). Also, the play is written by Danai Gurira, who is currently portraying Michonne on AMC’s “The Walking Dead.” You won’t find any zombies in this play, though.
“Convert,” however, had quite a few pit falls. Unfortunately, the biggest of which is that it is unnecessarily three hours, with two ten minute intermissions. There were definitely some cuts that needed to be made to the script. And despite the strong cast of actors chosen, some of the dialogue droned on for way too long. Every act seemed to come with a debate between two characters where neither would give up. The stakes were high, yes, but the energy ratcheted up to a plateau. I lost interest in Jekesai’s struggle at about the second intermission.
You won’t see something like “The Convert” every day though. Theatre about Africa is not often done in Washington, D.C., and especially not like this. Despite its run time, The Convert poses questions that will keep you talking with your friends the entire last metro train home. Keep an eye out for Prudence and Tamba, and enjoy! Make sure you get your tall-boy PBRs at one of the two intermissions though, cause you’ll definitely want one when the third act rolls around. The Theatre Gay out.