Photo: Scott Suchman
Danai Gurira’s The Conert opens in 1895 Southern Africa where Nancy Moricette’s character Jekesai runs onto the Woolly Mammoth stage wearing nothing but some Zimbabwe tribal neckware and a small animal hide skirt. The image is striking and reminiscent of a photo you would perhaps see in an old issue of National Geographic.
Seeking refuge from becoming a wife to her Uncle (Erik Kilpatrick), Jekesai reaches out to her aunt Mai Tamba (Starla Benford) who is a maid at the home of Chilford (Irungu Mutu), a Christian missionary. Jekesai is taken in and given a job, schooling, and the opportunity to convert from her pagan religion to Catholicism. Grateful for her newfound situation, we see Jekesai slowly shed her native identity (which includes changing her name to Ester) and turn into a devout missionary. Her new faith however will find her in the middle of rising tensions between the Zimbabwe natives, the European settlers, and the converted missionaries in the middle.
It is a powerful story and the latest piece by Gurira, who you may know from her role in AMC’s Walking Dead. She is no stranger to Woolly Mammoth, she performed on stage in 2006′s Continuum and premiered her play Eclipsed at Woolly back in 2009. A child to Zimbabwean parents, Gurira has been deeply interested in telling the story of her native homeland and delivers the first of a trilogy of plays about Zimbabwe in the form of a moving drama that is new and refreshing.
Gurira’s piece is hefty in length, the narrative unfolds over three acts and two intermissions. However it is also does so with a no-nonsense pace that keeps the audience glued to every moment. The show is big but it also delivers big punches, which come mostly from the show’s females.
Gurira set out to not only write a story of her heritage, but one through a strong female voice. In fact the males of the show are often much weaker, especially in the face of adversary. The Chancellor of the town (Alvin Keith), is swarmy and not afraid to turn wherever the tide is turning. Chilford starts as a determined teacher and missionary but quickly deteriorates into a pile of dust at the end.
Alongside Moricette, who delivers a great performance, is Dawn Ursula in a dazzling performance as the Chancellor’s fiancée Prudence. Her character has charm, wit, and wisdom that is beyond the era she lives in. Ursula’s performance sneaks up on you at first, but as the show goes on you cannot notice that she steals scene after scene.
Even Benford as Mai Tamba is entertaining and provides lighter moments as a maid that doesn’t really take Chilford’s work seriously. While she’s not mumbling and forgetting the words to Hail Mary, she’s talking to spirits and hiding pagan idols around the house.
Director Michael John Garces assembles a cast that each hit their roles out of the park, but make no mistake, this is a play where the female roles shine and they do so very brightly.
Misha Kachman’s set features a long runway that extends the action from the stage into the middle of the audience, where Garces isn’t afraid to place key dramatic moments inches away from the audience.
Full of wonderful performances and anchored with a straightforward yet striking narrative, The Convert lives up to Woolly Mammoth’s tradition of shaking things up and leaving the audience thinking at the end. As for Gurira, she is quickly proving her self as a name not just on the screen but on the stage as well.
The Convert performs now through March 10th, 2013 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, located at 641 D Street NW, Washington, DC 20004. Closest Metro stop: Archive/Navy Memorial (Yellow/Green lines). For more information call 202-393-3939.