"The Convert": a Disturbing, Moving Look at Colonialism in Zimbabwe in the 1890s


Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.

The Convert
McCarter Theater
Princeton, N.J.

The Convert, Danal Gurira’s new play about Zimbabwe in the 1890s that just opened at Princeton, New Jersey’s McCarter Theater, starts off very slowly. A clever young Bantu native girl, Jekesai, arrives at the home of a bright, determined black Catholic catechist, Chilford, in 1895 as rumblings of a conflict between local tribes and the occupying British roll across the plains of Africa. Chilford has offered to stop her marriage to an elderly local man whom she does not like in return for her enrollment as his religious protégée. This deal was broker by Mai Tamba, Chilford’s servant. Chilford and the girl talk, and talk, and talk.

There is something building in their conversation, though, as they go back and forth about the need for local black people to abandon their history and religious beliefs and embrace the recently arrived British and the Catholic church. Why should they do that, argues Jekesai, when the old ways had worked for hundreds of years? Her people had been in the country since the tenth century. Why they didn’t know that the old ways were wrong, argues Chilford. How, now, in 1895, do the natives and the newly arrived whites get along in a part of Africa that might soon be ripped apart in a bloody war?

The opening act is slow, and maybe fifteen minutes too long, but in the first moments of act two, The Convert, deftly and wonderfully directed by Emily Mann, catches fire. That fire roars through the end of the play as Jekesai, Chilford and others are caught in the vortex of a civil war and searing personal drama.

Gurira, born in the U.S. but raised in Zimbabwe, has written a powerful drama about what happened when white and black cultures collided in Africa at the end of the nineteenth century. Are people loyal to their tribe or the new white leaders? Just because the whites are in power, are they really in charge? What do you do when the civil war fails?

Gurira’s play moves along nicely. Chilford’s friend, Chancellor, and his snooty, educated wife Prudence, wander in and out of the play. Jekesai’s adventurous brother, Tamba, continually gets himself into trouble, bailed out most of the time by Mai Tamba. Chilford works hard to convert the local tribes to Catholicism. When his boss, Father Helms, is murdered by marauding tribesman, he is shaken to the core and searches deep within himself for his faith. Jekesai evolves into a lovely young woman under Chilford’s influence.

At the end of act two, Chancellor, an egomaniacal womanizer, is murdered. All of act three concerns the aftermath of his death. The final act is tumultuous, a firestorm of conflict and emotions that is a reminder that it is what happens to people, not to political institutions, which counts in a civil war.

The Convert slowly creeps up on you until, at the end of act two, it strangles you. There is a raging power in the play that makes it one of the most enjoyable, and frightening, new plays of the year. It is terribly timely, too, because, as we all know, northern Africa exploded last spring in a series of revolutions that toppled governments. Zimbabwe, run for years by Dictator Robert Mugabe, has been frequently shaken by civil strife and political disputes. The Convert is a play that sets the stage for the next one hundred years of conflict, all brought about, Gurira says, by the inability of black and white, and people of different religions, to get along amiably.

This play, part of a long cycle of plays about the story of Zimbabwe, is sizzling history. If ever a play brought history alive, this is it. The playwright and director, in clear, direct way, showed just how peoples clash and how explosions are triggered. There is no murkiness in the plot and direction—just searing drama.

The Convert is presented in a delightful way for those interested in history. The writer has told a good story about the history of the country in its formative days. In 1879, the first Jesuit mission was established in what was then Matabeleland. The country was occupied by the Shona people for nearly a thousand years, and the Ndebele for almost as long. (The Ndebele were an offshoot of the Zulus.) In 1888, the King of Matabeleland, Lobengula, signed a treaty tying the country to England and gave Cecil Rhodes and the British South Africa Company exclusive rights to all the nation’s metal and minerals. Ayear later, Britain granted Rhode and his company colonial power over the country and in 1890 the Union Jack was flown over Salisbury, now Harare (where The Convertis set). In 1893, the Ndebele tribe warred against the British and lost. A year later, the government forced natives to pay a “hut tax,” and to do so have to work for the whites to earn money to pay it. In 1895, England renamed Matabeleland as Rhodesia after Cecil Rhodes. In 1896, several thousand Ndebele and Shona warriors started armed uprisings in the land. They were soundly defeated in 1897. Several tribal leaders were executed and the whites took complete charge of Rhodesia. All of this is mentioned in the dialogue and serves as the political and historical backdrop to the play. It is referred to generally, though, which is good because the history of Zimbabwe is perhaps too complex to explain well as backdrop to a play.

The theater has also devoted numerous pages in its program, with plenty of photos, and space on its website, to explain the history of the nation and its people to theatergoers. The theater and playwright should be applauded for producing one of the best history plays of the year and one that is well explained to the audience.

The power of the play is in the actors, all of whom do a superb job. The three-hour drama, a bit long, is owned by Pascale Armand, the compelling Jekesai, whose life is caught up in the war and clash of cultures. She is at times cunning and at times innocent, but always the center of attention. Her counterpart is Chilford, the always worrying catechist played with thunder by LeRoy McClain. He is in charge until threatened and then his superiority is questioned. He is bold and brave, weak and vulnerable, often at the same time. Others in the stellar cast include Cheryl Lynn Bruce a Mai Tamba, Warner Joseph Miller as Tamba, Harold Surratt as the Uncle, Kevin Mambo as Chancellor and Zainab Jah as Prudence.

PRODUCTION:  Produced by the McCarter Theater, in association with the Center Theatre Group and Goodman Theater. Sets: Daniel Ostling, Costumes: Paul Taxewell, Lighting: Lap Chi Chu, Sound: Darron L. West.

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