Change is part of life.
Some changes are easy, others much less so.
And when cultures collide, change is often dangerous, violent, and destructive. From the opening scenes of Danai Gurira’s astonishing period drama “The Convert” – set in Colonial Africa in the late 1800s – we are plunged into the middle of such a change, as the brutal dominance of the British Empire and the aggressive forward thrust of Christianity brings civilization to the people of Africa – whether they want it or not. The absorbing and emotionally powerful play – presented with sensitivity and passion by Marin Theatre Company in Mill Valley – follows a young Shona woman, whose conversion to Catholicism puts her at the precarious center of her country’s increasingly violent cultural divide. As the occupying English government imposes its rule, one of its tools of dominance is, of course, the church, its leaders waging war on local “pagan” practices, forcing codes of dress and behavior that seem bizarre to the locals, at the very least, and in some cases, represent a betrayal of centuries of local custom and religious tradition.
In a transcendent performance by Katherine Renee Turner, young Jekesai – speaking no English, having never set foot inside a house with an actual floor of cement or wood – has sought shelter at the home of Mr. Chilford, a pro-English Shona convert who lives in the rapidly colonializing country of Rhodesia. Bare-breasted and terrified, Jekesai hopes to escape a forced marriage to an elderly villager who has purchased her to join his other wives, by trading a goat to her cruel uncle, played by L. Peter Callender with comically menacing perfection.
Mr. Chilford has willingly traded in his native name and style of dress for proper Victorian substitutes. As a result, he’s incurred the suspicions of the locals, who call him bafu, or “traitor.” His chief allies are the well-tailored Chancellor – played with relish by Jefferson A. Russell – and Chancellor’s educated fiancée Prudence, an amazing character brought to life by the sensational Omoze Idehenre.
Fond of the benefits of British culture they’ve adopted, they are only gradually realizing that they will never be treated as equal to the wealthy whites who are coming to their country in droves, and are rapidly losing the connection to their own people.
And then there’s Jekesai.
Her resourceful aunt Mai Tamba, a wonderful Elizabeth Carter, works as a servant to the deeply Catholic Mr. Chilford. It’s a job Mai Tamba keeps by feigning conversion to Christianity, half-reciting her prayers – “Hail Mary, full of ghosts!” – while secretly maintaining her old customs, hiding charms in the house, reciting prayers to her ancestors. She encourages Jekesai, whose quickly been dressed in “proper” attire and renamed Ester, to follow her example, never guessing the young woman will quickly take to Christianity with a passionate fervor surpassing even Chillford’s.
As local anger against the British grows, Ester’s faith is put to increasingly impossible tests, her love of Jesus competing against her commitment to her family, her country and her most basic sense of identity.
“The Convert,” three hours long, told in three riveting acts, is gorgeously written by Gurira, best-known as an actress. She plays Michonne in the TV series The Walking Dead. This stunningly well-done production is directed with exceptional skill by director Jasson Minadakis. The story only stumbles in its final moments, with a perplexing twist that seems less the result of previous actions, and more a calculated attempt at giving the play some shock value.
It’s a tiny issue in a play of monumental power and insight.
The power of “The Convert,” a must-see if ever there was one, is how it illustrates, with impeccable beauty, how the changes we experience can affect more than just ourselves. When who we are shifts, we also change our families, our communities, and sometimes, violently or peaceably, for good or for bad, we end up changing the whole world.
“The Convert” runs Tuesday–Sunday through March 15 at Marin Theatre Company, marintheatre.org