When a three-hour production feels like a play half that length, it happens not by chance but as a direct result of plot intrigue, well-clipped direction, and masterful acting. Jasson Minadakis directs Marin Theatre’s The Convert with both fervor and respect for its historically important subject: the early clash of British colonialism, native traditions, and the Catholic Church in late 19th century Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Set in the office/home of a black, aspirant-to-be priest, the play’s action is so crisp, emotionally taut, and immediate-feeling that it almost feels this tale of history could be occurring today in an Africa still too often torn by warring factions and terrorist murders.
Jabari Brisport is Chilford, an English-educated, Catholic minister who aspires to raise himself and all his fellow townspeople from what he views as backward ways. With a stiff-necked piety that still holds room for sincere caring to do and be good, he is horrified by those Africans who still walk around bare-chested and barefoot and who hold onto age-old beliefs like honoring ancestors as gods. He is also determined to change their ways via the Cross.
A young native woman, Jekesai, arrives at Chilford’s doorstep frightened and desperate, being forced by her dead father’s brother to marry an old man in exchange for a goat. In her, Chilford soon finds the true convert he has been seeking. As played by Katherine Renee Turner and as renamed with the Christian name Ester, his protégé is to become prime evidence for his sought-after priesthood. He proudly struts how she quickly learns the Queen’s tongue, becomes a devout Catholic, and begins to increase their flock as she evangelizes at the local market. The fact that she calls him “Master” does not seem to bother either of them but does point to the fundamental flaw of his aspiration: He wants to take the English model and superimpose it on his backward Africa, including its society of class distinctions. While sincerely devoted to Jesus and Mary, Mr. Brisport’s Chilford has also become superiorly ‘white’ in his own breeding as he mimics the high-tea, hat-umbrella-tie-wearing English around him. He rather pompously works to uproot the traditions of his past in hopes of making himself and those around him Christian and English.
Chilford’s close friend Chancellor (Jefferson Russell) is less interested in the white’s religion and more interested in how to attain the affluence and accruements of the English. His fiancé, Prudence (Omoze Idehenre), has her eyes set on living the life of high society but is conflicted between letting go and hanging on to her African core. Elizabeth Carter as Chilford’s wonderfully stoic and proud housekeeper Mai Tamba, satisfies the ‘Master’ with devout “Hail Mary, full of ghosts” chants while secretly still relying on ancient practices and incantations for sanctifying his abode.
All these aspirations and internal conflicts are played out on the stage with one more character: The never seen, but always-present English. It is they who have shaped in 1896 an economy where more and more locals must work in backbreaking and low-paying mines instead of tending to crops and cows. As uprisings grow bigger and closer to Chilford’s very ordered sanctuary, we as audience witness the mounting eruptions with our own growing apprehensions. To Chilford, Ester, and Chancellor, the ordered, superior world of the English will prevail; and they believe they will be protected and rewarded by the English for their blind loyalty. The former prediction will certainly be true for the English in Rhodesia, at least for the next eighty years. The latter hope, we as audience begin to suspect will not bear true for these English-acting or any other Africans.
Telling little-known but important stories of history is one of the most powerful things live theatre can do. The Convert excels in this mission and is well worth the investment it demands in time and in contemplative reflection.
Rating: 5 E’s