Convert written by Danai Gurira and playing at the Gremlin Theatre in St. Paul is an insightful look into British colonialism in south Africa. Focusing on the spread of Christianity and its effects on the native tribal people of Rhodesia where the play is set. A bit on the long side, it avoids outstaying its welcome thanks in part to the compelling conflict between Christianity and the tribal ways which is beautifully illustrated by the story’s main character Ester. A beautiful looking production that is packed with a talented cast, I found it mesmerizing.
Set in the late 1890’s, the play opens with Jekesai a young girl from the village being brought by her cousin to the home of Chilford for whom her aunt is housekeeper. Chilford is native to the area as well but he has been raised since a young boy and educated by white colonists, he hopes to one day become a Jesuit priest. Jekesai has been brought to him in hopes he will take her in and spare her from being traded as a wife to an old man for some goats by her uncle. Her aunt convinces Chilford that she wants to come there so she can learn about Jesus, which is the most important thing in the eyes of Chilford. He decides to take her in and teach her to speak English, to read, write and above all, how to be a Christian. Along with that, he gives her a new name, Ester. There is pulling over time between the Christian beliefs and the tribal ways of Ester’s people. This adds tensions between the native people and the colonizers, an increasing sense that revolt is coming. Convert is complex in it’s ideas but told in such a way that they’re made clear to the audience. There’s a simple logic to the way in which Ester interprets her world, but she is anything but simple. A woman of intelligence in a world that does not value that in a woman or a black person.
Leading the cast are Ashe Jaafaru as Ester, and Yinka Ayinde as Chilford. Jaafaru portrays Ester at first as a desperate scared girl, but as her lessons progress she has a way of conveying to the audience the connecting of dots. She reasons that because she said she wanted to learn about Jesus and thus was delivered from her fated marriage, that Jesus saved her. Later, she will use her superior knowledge of the scripture to correct a white Father. Chilford tells her she must never do that again but she debates him using logic that’s hard to argue with. Unfortunately, because of the times and her position, even though she is right, she learns that she’s wrong. Though her understanding of that again shows ultimately her higher intelligence. When the end comes she will prove to also have superior morality. Ayinde makes some interesting choices as Chilford, he’s a very moral character, but at times he uses his authority to override Ester and her Aunt. Ayinde will signal an end to his patience with a change in tone, and just for a moment let us see that as good intentioned as Chilford is, he is still just a man. His fondness for Ester and his pride in her accomplishments are shown, and though there’s never a hint of an attraction between them, Ayinde finds a way to make it felt that if there’s one woman he could love, it would be Ester. She’s the only person for whom his morality falters in the end.
Credit needs to also be given to Foster Johns as Dialect Couch. No one really speaks the Queen’s English in the play, many of the characters speak a mix of English as a second language and Shona. All amazingly consistent and credible. The other highlight of the show was the set design and lighting design. Joe Stanley’s set design is simple, everything takes place in the main room of Chilford’s home. Though The Gremlin Theatre is a relatively small black box theater, the set convincingly transports us to another country and another time. This transportation is aided greatly by Tony Stoeri’s lighting design. Stoeri creates moods with the lighting, highlighting the feel of the scenes. Creating shadows of different colors through the windows to evoke hope or danger depending on what is needed.
Convert plays through March 15th at the Gremlin Theatre for more information and to buy tickets go to http://franktheatre.org/