The entire play takes place in the late 19th Century home of Chilford (Yinka Ayinde), an African who has been living and studying with the white missionaries since he was a boy. He has completely renounced the beliefs and customs of the Shona, and aspires to be a priest. His housekeeper Mai Tamba (Ivory Doublette) prays to the Virgin Mary when directed, but still believes in and performs the traditions she was brought up with, including something with bones, and tucking a (dead?) snake into the couch. To prevent her niece Jekesai (Ashe Jaafaru) from being forcefully married to an old man who already has many wives, she asks Chilford to take her in. He agrees, names her Ester, and insists that she study with him. She proves to be an intelligent and quick-learning student, and soon appears to be completely converted to the ways of the church. This concerns her cousin Tamba (Maje Adams) and uncle (Warren C. Bowles), who see this as a betrayal and know that there is trouble brewing between the settlers and the natives. Also caught in the conflict are Chilford's friend Chancellor (AJ Friday) and his fiance Prudence (Hope Cervantes), who attempt to walk the fine line of living as the whites but still being connected to their people. Eventually Jekesai/Ester is forced to choose a side, with tragic results.
|Ester prays to her new god (Ashe Jaafaru, with Maje Adams as
Tamba and Ivory Doublette as Mai Tamba, photo by Tony Nelson)
The talented cast bring depth and humanity to all of these characters, even when you question their choices. Denying people the right to connect with their families through ancient traditions passed down through generations, and forcing them to believe in a story that has no connection to them, seems inherently wrong. But yet, saving a young woman from the fate of being the tenth wife of a much older man, and giving her an education, seems like a good thing. The history of colonialism in Africa and the enforced religious conversion by missionaries has left lasting and complicated scars, which this play illustrates with an engaging human story.
The Convert continues through March 15 at Gremlin Theatre.